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Sri Lanka promises India quick political settlement, signs 7 pacts

New Delhi, June 9 (IANS) Sri Lanka Wednesday assured India of a political settlement for minorities and quick resettlement of the displaced Tamils. The two countries also signed seven accords as India announced initiatives for reconstruction of the war-hit provinces of the Island country, including building 50,000 houses, rail networks and a thermal power plant.

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

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

For improving transport networks and connectivity, an agreement was signed for the reconstruction of the Madu-Talaimannar railway line and to fast-track other projects for which India has pledged $800 million credit line.

India also agreed to assist in the rehabilitation of Palay 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.

In steps to enhance friendly relations, India decided 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 Rajapaksa and conveyed India’s concerns over the plight of displaced Tamils and pressed for a political settlement of the Tamil issue.

During the talks, Manmohan Singh conveyed to the Sri Lankan leader that the end of Tamil insurgency in May last year had offered ‘a historic opportunity to spearhead an era of genuine national reconciliation’, Indian Foriegn Secretary Nirupama Rao told reporters after the talks.

‘The prime minister also stressed meaningful devolution package, building on the 13th Amendment, would provide enabling conditions for reconciliation,’ said Rao.

Manmohan Singh stressed the need for taking ‘urgent steps to resettle the remaining IDPs (internally displaced persons)’ and speedy steps for their rehabilitation, added Rao.

Rajapaksa, on his part, conveyed to India that his government intended to move forward quickly in regard to achieving a political settlement that would satisfy the aspirations of the minorities, said reliable sources.

He conveyed his desire to seek ‘an inclusive process’ and has begun the process of consultations, said the sources. India sees it as an encouraging development, added the sources.

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

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

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.

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 initiative that was fleshed out during the talks entailed India’s National Thermal Power Corporation 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 special 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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