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Lanka pilgrims fly home after threat

Jayalalithaa

Chennai, Sept. 4: Nearly 200 Sinhalese Christian pilgrims were airlifted out of Tamil Nadu today as fringe groups targeted the tourists, apparently emboldened by chief minister Jayalalithaa’s move to pack off amateur Lankan footballers earlier this week.

The mass exit followed an advisory the Sri Lankan foreign ministry issued on Monday night, asking citizens not to travel to Tamil Nadu.

The advisory came after 184 Lankan pilgrims were forced to take cover inside the Madha Koil Church in Poondi near Thanjavur, 350km from here, after members of the group Naam Thamizhar Iyakkam threatened them and protested against their presence in the state.

The pilgrims were later escorted to Velankanni Church by police to attend the midnight mass. Three special buses then took them to Tiruchy airport.

One of the buses was pelted with stones but the pilgrims managed to reach the airport, where a chartered plane flew them to Colombo.

The pilgrims had planned to stay till Saturday, when the annual Velankanni Festival concludes. “This is our annual pilgrimage and we did not face such a situation even last year. It really puzzles us what has changed,” said M. Fernando, a retired schoolteacher.

The turn of events followed Jayalalithaa’s move to expel two Lankan amateur football teams who had come to play friendlies in Chennai.

Sources said the fringe groups probably took the actions as a licence to target any Lankan national in Tamil Nadu.

Jayalalithaa had also said it was shameful that New Delhi had allowed the Lankan teams to enter India to play matches at a time her government was consistently opposing the training of Lankan military personnel in India, particularly in Tamil Nadu.

Her government could face a piquant situation next year when Chennai hosts the Asian Track and Field Championships. “Having expelled Lankan footballers, what stand will Jayalalithaa take next year when we have to host Lankan athletes who will be competing at the same Nehru Stadium?” asked a former sports administrator.

R.K.M.A. Rajakaruna, the Sri Lankan deputy high commissioner in Chennai, termed the developments unfortunate as the two countries shared a common culture.

State police have been asked to crack down on future demonstrations or attacks on Lankan tourists as such violence could lead to retaliatory assaults on Indian Tamils in Colombo. “We hope better sense prevails on both sides,” said a senior officer.