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Sri Lanka assures India of political settlement, 7 pacts signed (Roundup)

New Delhi, June 9 (IANS) Sri Lanka Wednesday assured India of a political settlement for minorities and quicker rehabilitation of the displaced Tamils as New Delhi announced a host of initiatives for reconstruction of war-hit provinces of the island country including building 50,000 houses, rail network and a thermal power plant.

The two sides signed seven pacts to boost bilateral cooperation across a range of areas, including security, energy, railways and cultural exchange.

In steps to enhance friendly relations, India agreed to open consulates in Jaffna and Hambantota, launch a CEOs forum to invigorate trade ties and start an ‘India-Sri Lanka Knowledge Initiative’ to expand collaboration in educational sector.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held wide-ranging delegation-level talks with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and conveyed that the end of the insurgency in May last year offered ‘a historic opportunity to spearhead an era of reconciliation where all communities can come together to realise a political settlement’.

The prime minister also observed that a meaningful devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment, would create the necessary conditions for this purpose, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said.

In particular, he emphasised the need for urgent steps to resettle the remaining IDPs and urged Sri Lanka to undertake speedy rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts in the northern and eastern Sri Lanka, added Rao.

Manmohan Singh reiterated ‘India’s constructive support for efforts that build peace and reconciliation among all communities in Sri Lanka,’ said a joint declaration.

In key steps aimed at boosting counter-terror cooperation, the two sides inked pacts on mutual legal assistance on criminal matters and the transfer of sentenced prisoners.

For improving connectivity, the two sides signed an agreement for the reconstruction of the Madu-Talaimannar railway line and agreed to fast-track other rail projects for which India has pledged $800 million lines of credit.

India also agreed to assist in the rehabilitation of Palaly Airport and Kankesanthurai Harbour and decided to restore ferry services between Colombo and Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu and between Talaimannar and Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu.

Rajapaksa, who began his four-day state visit to India Tuesday evening, reiterated ‘his determination to evolve a political settlement acceptable to all communities,’ said the declaration.

Sharing his ideas on a broader dialogue with all parties concerned, he ‘expressed his resolve to continue to implement in particular the relevant provisions of the Constitution designed to strengthen national amity and reconciliation through empowerment,’ said the declaration.

India sees it as an encouraging development, said the sources.

According to the Sri Lankan government, around 50,000 displaced Tamils continue to live in relief camps more than a year after the Sri Lankan troops crushed the insurgency led by Tamil Tigers.

Although Colombo promised to resettle all 300,000 war displaced people within six months of defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, it has now set August as the deadline for closure of relief camps housing the refugees.

Rajapaksa’s reassurance could go some way in pacifying angry political parties in India who have voiced their concern over the treatment meted out to Tamil civilians after the war ended in May leading to what some say a triumphalist feeling in the Sinhala-dominated establishment.

When a delegation of Tamil MPs called on Rajapaksa and pressed for a deadline for resettling IDPs here, he told them that he needed time and assured that complete resettlement would be possible by December this year, said sources.

Against this backdrop, the Indian government announced a slew of initiatives to spur the rehabilitation of the displaced civilians and reconstruction of the provinces worst hit by the violence that included India building 50,000 houses for the displaced persons in Northern and Eastern provinces in Sri Lanka.

Another new initiative that was fleshed out during the talks entailed India’s National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) collaborating with the Ceylon Electricity Board of Sri Lanka for building a 500 MW coal-fired plant at Sampur (Trincomalee).

The two sides agreed to finalise all relevant arrangements for the power plant within three months as India pledged another $200 million for the project.

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) on conducting feasibility studies for interconnecting electricity grids of the two countries was also signed.

Deep sea power cables could be used to integrate the grids of the two countries.

Increased development cooperation was reflected across other pacts inked that included an MoU on developmental projects and setting up of a women’s trade facilitation and community learning centre by SEWA, an Ahmedabad-based NGO.

Building on the gains of a Free Trade Agreement, the two sides directed their officials to to forge a comprehensive framework for economic cooperation that suited both countries.

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