NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee arrives in Colombo on Tuesday to discuss the safety of some 230,000 Tamil civilians caught in the end-game of Sri Lanka’s 25-year-old civil war.
The government faces pressure to protect Tamils, who are closely linked to about 60 million Tamils in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu across a narrow strait from Sri Lanka, an issue all the more sensitive ahead of general elections in May.
“We have no sympathy for any terrorist activities,” Mukherjee said on Tuesday before flying to Colombo.
“But we are concerned with the plight of the civilians and we shall have to see how the civilians can be protected and they do not become the hapless victims of the situation.”
Sri Lanka’s military was on Tuesday battling to encircle the last territory held by the separatist Tamil Tigers after seizing the last major town the rebels controlled, the northeastern port of Mullaittivu, aiming to strike a death blow to one of Asia’s longest-running insurgencies.
Both the Sri Lankan government and the rebels have been trading allegations over casualties among people aid agencies say are caught in just 300 square km of jungle in the Indian Ocean island’s northeast.
Human rights watchdogs and the government accuse the LTTE — designated a terrorist group by India, the United States and the European Union — of keeping civilians there to force them to act as fighters, battlefield labourers or human shields.
On Monday, the United Nations in Sri Lanka said dozens of people had been killed or wounded over the weekend in shelling from sources it could not identify.
The pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com late on Monday said there were fears that as many as 300 had been killed in shelling on Monday inside a no-fire zone the military announced last week, quoting what it said were eyewitnesses.
With elections only months away, India’s Congress party wants to keep its coalition partners happy and would like to be seen as sympathetic towards Tamils.
Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), is one of the pillars of the federal coalition and it has brought pressure on the government to act to save Sri Lankan Tamils.
“The Congress needs to show it is acting to protect Tamils in Sri Lanka so that the DMK in turn can go to the voters and take credit,” political commentator Cho Ramaswamy told Reuters.
As part of what analysts say is posturing, the DMK has threatened to pull out from the coalition and backed protests in Tamil Nadu against the Sri Lankan military offensive.
Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa has invited South Indian state Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and opposition leader Jayalalithaa Jayaram to visit northern areas of the war zone where civilians have been displaced.
He said they could personally appeal to Tamil Tiger rebels to release civilians held as human shields at gun point, the official website of the President’s secretariat said.
Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry said Mukherjee’s visit was 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”.
India also is seeking the extradition of Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), blamed for for former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination during a 1991 election campaign in Tamil Nadu.
The killing was to avenge Gandhi’s decision in 1987 — four years into the civil war in Sri Lanka — to send a peacekeeping force to fight the rebels. The mission was a disaster for India.
But as representatives of a minority seen as suffering discrimination, the LTTE still enjoy some support in Tamil Nadu.
“Clearly, India is drawing a distinction between the interest of the Tamil people and the interest of the LTTE which it wants to see finished,” said Ajay Sahni of the New Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management.
Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal