India PM Singh likely to skip Sri Lanka summit amid war crimes row

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is likely to skip a meeting of Commonwealth leaders in Sri Lanka this week marred by long-running accusations that Colombo has failed to address the issue of war crimes against minority Tamils.

Singh's move is seen as bowing to pressure from India's own large Tamil population, with an eye to a general election that must be held by May 2014.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already said he would boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that Sri Lanka is hosting from Nov 15 to 17.

Harper said last month he was disturbed by continuing reports of intimidation and incarceration of political leaders and journalists, the harassment of minorities, reported disappearances and allegations of extra judicial killings.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will attend, but will demand an investigation into the accusations.

The Sri Lankan government, which defeated separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, faces increasing pressure from the international community to try those responsible for rights abuses during a nearly three-decade-long civil war.

Critics in India slammed Singh's decision as opening the door for giant Asian rival China, which helps fund Sri Lanka's military and infrastructure projects, to extend its influence.

Indian news channels and newspapers reported the decision over the weekend, saying Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid would go instead, but the foreign ministry has not confirmed this.

"From time to time the prime minister is required to be here and he is unable to visit," Khurshid told reporters on Sunday.

"It should not be looked at as something that, if such a decision has been taken, will affect India-Sri Lanka relations."

Sri Lanka, an island of 21 million people just off India's southern tip, has become a visible front in the competition between India and China, where mutual suspicion and commercial ambition have led to a race for construction projects.

"Now we are vacating our backyard for the Chinese to rebuild all of a booming post-war Sri Lanka," influential columnist and editor Shekhar Gupta wrote in the Indian Express newspaper, about Singh's move.

"Cancelling now would amount to letting India down without persuading one more Tamil to vote for his coalition."

Colombo had not been officially informed of Singh's decision not to attend, Karunatilaka Amunugama, the secretary of Sri Lanka's external affairs ministry, told Reuters.

The move has reawakened questions about Singh's legacy after he steps down - as he is expected to do - following the 2014 vote. His ruling Congress party has been weakened by a string of corruption scandals, high inflation and stuttering growth after nine years in power, but is relying on its record of support for the rural citizens who form two-thirds of India's population.

Singh's landmark foreign policy initiatives have hit major roadblocks, such as a 2008 atomic energy deal with the United States that lifted India out of diplomatic isolation over its nuclear programme.

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