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India, Lanka to discuss safety of Tamil civilians

world Updated: Jan 28, 2009 00:49 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

Foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee arrived on an unscheduled visit on Tuesday night and met Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and convey India’s concerns about the Tamil civilians caught in the fight between the Lankan armed forces and the LTTE.

The foreign minister’s sudden visit comes in the wake of reports of civilians getting killed in shelling by the Sri Lankan army.

Tens of thousands of displaced civilians are in the forefront of the war, with both the army and the LTTE training long-range artillery guns at each other.

The United Nations on Monday released a report saying that the situation involving civilians was snowballing into a “crisis”.

“There have been many civilians killed over the past two days,” UN resident coordinator Neil Bunhe told the media on Monday. “It’s really a crisis now.”

There have been unconfirmed reports about hundreds of civilians being killed and injured in the battle for the remaining part of the north-eastern district of Mullaitivu where the LTTE are currently holed up.

Before leaving New Delhi, Mukherjee told reporters that India would never tolerate the LTTE but was worried about the displaced Tamil civilians.

“We’re for the fight against terrorists and all sorts of terrorism,” he said. “Therefore we have no sympathy for any terrorist activity indulged by any organisation, and particularly the LTTE (which) is a banned organisation in India. But we are concerned about the plight of the civilians and we shall have to see how the civilians can be protected and do not become the hapless victims of the situation.”

Mukherjee’s visit to Colombo also indicates increased political pressure from UPA’s ally in Tamil Nadu, the DMK led by chief minister M. Karunanidhi. The party had passed a resolution in the state assembly last week threatening to withdraw support from the UPA if India did not intervene on behalf of the civilians.

Earlier this month, foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon has visited Sri Lanka and met Rajapaksa.

The Rajapaksa government has denied allegations that Sri Lankan army shells had targeted civilians. Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said on Tuesday: “The army has not and will not fire into safe zones designated for civilians.”

The Lankan foreign ministry also played down Mukerjee’s visit, saying the meeting with Rajapaksa was “in response to an invitation” extended by the Sri Lankan government.

“Mukherjee’s visit, which takes place at a time of repeated successes in the security operations to free the civilian population from the terror of the LTTE, is in keeping with the tradition of regular, frank and constructive dialogue between India and Sri Lanka at the highest levels of political leadership, on important matters of mutual interest,” the ministry said in a statement. It did not give details about the meeting’s agenda.