India's Modi to visit Sri Lanka's Tamil heartland

COLOMBO (AFP) - Narendra Modi will become the first Indian leader to visit Sri Lanka's war-torn Tamil heartland this week, sending a powerful message on reconciliation to the new government in Colombo.

Mr Modi's first official trip to Sri Lanka comes just weeks after the island's new president travelled to India and signals an easing of ties strained under former president Mahinda Rajapakse, who cultivated close relations with rival China.

It is part of a tour of Indian Ocean nations that will also take in the Seychelles and Mauritius - although not the Maldives, where the arrest of former president Mohamed Nasheed has triggered a political crisis.

But the main focus is on Sri Lanka, where new President Maithripala Sirisena has vowed to reduce Beijing's influence and address the grievances of the island's approximately three million Tamils.

"Obviously, the intent is to strengthen our overall ties with Sri Lanka and this has many aspects because we have a very broad-based, substantive relationship with that neighbour," India's Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar said in New Delhi on Monday.

"Politically, we clearly want to promote and encourage the reconciliation process, support democracy and reform."

Mr Jaishankar said the two countries were discussing how the around 100,000 Tamil refugees still living in India, many of them in government-run camps, could return to Sri Lanka "with honour, dignity (and) safety".

Hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled to India at the height of the 37-year war between Sri Lankan forces and Tamil separatists that ended in 2009.

They share close cultural ties with the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and many Indians were angered by their treatment under the former regime.

Mr Rajapakse won acclaim for leading a crushing military victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels, ending a war that had claimed some 100,000 lives.

But his failure to bring about post-war reconciliation bred resentment among Tamils and led to international criticism over human rights.

Mr Modi will travel to the Jaffna peninsula - Sri Lanka's northern Tamil heartland and scene of the worst fighting - on Saturday after addressing parliament in Colombo on Friday.

He is only the second foreign leader to visit the battle-scarred region after British Prime Minister David Cameron, who travelled there during a Commonwealth summit in Colombo in November 2013.

While reconstruction has begun in some parts of Jaffna city, many neighbourhoods and surrounding villages are still strewn with rubble as a legacy of the heavy bombardments that they endured over the decades.

Tens of thousands of troops are still garrisoned in Jaffna despite international calls for a scaling-back of numbers.