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India ready to help evacuation of Sri Lankan Tamils

world Updated: Feb 18, 2009 14:49 IST

India said on Wednesday it was ready to help evacuate tens of thousands of Tamil civilians caught in the crossfire between Sri Lankan troops and Tiger rebels in the northeast of the island.

The statement came as troops appeared on the verge of crushing the rebels' 37-year campaign for an independent Tamil homeland after a series of battlefield victories across northeast Sri Lanka.

"India is ready to facilitate the evacuation of civilians trapped in the area of conflict," Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee told parliament.

While stressing the importance of a "negotiated political settlement" acceptable to all communities in Sri Lanka, Mukherjee accused the Tiger rebels of inflicting "much damage" on the wider Tamil community.

Sri Lanka's Tamils share close cultural and religious links with the 62 million Tamils of India's southern Tamil Nadu state, also home to thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees.

The regional DMK party which rules Tamil Nadu is a key ally of India's Congress-led government.

Indian Tamils have been staging protests condemning Colombo's military offensive and urging New Delhi to broker a ceasefire on the island.

India, which once trained and armed the Tigers, has adopted a hands-off approach since a disastrous military intervention in the 1980s.

Indian troops, sent in by ex-Congress premier Rajiv Gandhi to enforce a peace deal on the island, ended up battling the Tigers. New Delhi withdrew its soldiers in 1990 after 32 months in which it lost at least 1,200 men.

India banned the rebels after Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991 during an election rally in Tamil Nadu by a Sri Lankan Tamil separatist woman suicide bomber.