Sri Lanka to free Indian fishermen ahead of PM's Delhi visit

COLOMBO • Sri Lanka has announced that 16 Indian fishermen will be released to coincide with the visit to New Delhi by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The fishermen, from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, arrested for poaching in Sri Lankan waters, will be freed as a "goodwill gesture" ahead of the visit - his first overseas trip since winning last month's general election - starting today, his office said yesterday.

Mr Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena have sought to cool relations with China and strengthen ties with traditional ally and neighbouring giant India.

At presidential polls in January, Mr Sirisena dislodged former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had relied heavily on India's regional rival China for economic and political support.

Mr Sirisena, who immediately appointed Mr Wickremesinghe prime minister, has tried to repair relations with the West and India that soured during Mr Rajapaksa's rule.

"The two sides will focus on strengthening Indo-Sri Lanka relations, regional peace and reconciliation during the two-day visit," Mr Wickremesinghe's office said.

During the visit, Mr Wickremesinghe is due to hold talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other Indian leaders.

Fishermen from the two countries often stray into each others' rich fishing waters, creating a thorny issue for their governments.

But the two countries often release arrested fishermen ahead of official visits in a diplomatic show of cooperation. In March, Mr Modi visited Sri Lanka, the first by an Indian premier in 28 years, underscoring the desire to reset relations with the new Colombo leadership.

During his decade in power, Mr Rajapaksa had caused unease in Delhi by forging close ties with Beijing.

India, which traditionally regards Sri Lanka as within its sphere of influence, was furious last year when Mr Rajapaksa allowed two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo.

Beijing had also sided with Sri Lanka on the international stage when Mr Rajapaksa came under Western criticism over its rights record and allegations that 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed at the end of the country's civil war in 2009.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2015, with the headline 'Sri Lanka to free Indian fishermen ahead of PM's Delhi visit'. Print Edition | Subscribe