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PM picks Lanka for first visit

New Delhi, Feb. 24: Manmohan Singh has decided to start his first bilateral visit as Prime Minister with a trip to Colombo next month, in a clear signal to identify Sri Lanka as a 'good neighbour'.

He will also visit the island nation of Mauritius, which is important to Delhi, following a postponement late last year.

The Lanka visit ' the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 18 years ' will also be a categoric endorsement of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government's support for the peace process between Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE).

The proposed trips will be Singh's first bilateral and substantive official tour though he had halted in London in September for a few hours' working visit with his British counterpart Tony Blair. Singh was on his way to New York for the UN General Assembly.

Singh has been reluctant to go on bilateral visits since becoming Prime Minister last year. The Thailand and New York trips were for multilateral meetings.

His scheduled Mauritius visit in December was called off at the last minute, perhaps because of the two countries' failure to agree on a review of the avoidance of double-taxation treaty.

Dates are still being worked out for the coming tour but indications are it will extend from March 31 to April 4.

Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Khadirgamar is coming here tomorrow on a two-day working visit, which many consider an attempt to firm up the dates and the programme of Singh's visit.

Khadirgamar will meet his Indian counterpart, K. Natwar Singh, and other senior officials in Delhi and get the opportunity to discuss a number of issues of mutual importance and concern.

High-level visits from Lanka have been regular in the past years, indicating the national consensus in its ruling People's Alliance and in the Opposition outfit, the United National Party, on having good relations with Delhi.

Singh's bilateral visit is significant not only because it will be the first by a Prime Minister since Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 but also because he will be the first Congress Prime Minister to do so since then.

After Rajiv's assassination in May 1991, successive Indian governments have demanded the extradition of LTTE chief Prabhakaran, alleged to be the murder mastermind. But with Delhi's strong support for the Lanka peace process in which the LTTE is a key player, the former has clarified it will do nothing to derail the process.

Amritsar bus

The third India-Pakistan bus service, between Amritsar and Lahore, may commence on Baisakhi on April 13, within a week after the scheduled flagging off of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus across the Line of Control on April 7.

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