Indian Air Force chief to visit Sri Lanka

Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi is expected to meet President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

india Updated: Jan 28, 2006 18:51 IST

The chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF) is set to visit Sri Lanka amid persisting concern over the island nation's ethnic conflict despite a breakthrough in the peace process.

Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi will reach Colombo on Monday on a five-day trip.

He is expected to meet President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse - who is the president's brother - and senior military officials.

IAF officials are tightlipped about the visit as well as the issues on Tyagi's agenda.

One official described it as a "goodwill trip" aimed at strengthening bilateral and defence ties.

India's military establishment has been keeping a wary eye on Sri Lanka following an upsurge in violence in December blamed on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that has killed nearly 100 people, including 70 members of the armed forces.

The Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government this week to hold peace talks at Geneva next month.

India has also been concerned by reports that the LTTE has built a nascent air wing that is said to include two small fixed-wing aircraft and possibly one helicopter.

Military analysts say the Tigers could use the aircraft for possible suicide missions.

The LTTE has adamantly refused to allow Nordic peace monitors in Sri Lanka access to the airstrip, located in the Wanni region that the Tigers control.

Earlier this month, India's army chief, Gen. JJ Singh, had said that the international community would not allow hostilities to break out between LTTE and government forces.

"The LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) will be pressurised to continue on the route of dialogue and find a peaceful solution (to the crisis)," Singh had said.

In December 2005, the chief of the Indian Army's Southern Command, Lt Gen BS Thakkar, visited strategic areas in Sri Lanka's north beyond which lie territory held by the LTTE.

India and Sri Lanka also held their first joint naval exercise in the same month.

In 1987, the Indian Army was deployed as peacekeepers in the north and east of Sri Lanka under a peace accord.

But differences later surfaced between India and the LTTE, leading to clashes between the rebels and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF).

Nearly 1,200 Indian soldiers were killed before India pulled back its forces from Sri Lanka in March 1990.

India outlawed the LTTE after one of its suicide bombers assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991.

First Published: Jan 28, 2006 12:52 IST