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US taps Delhi on Lanka foray - Washington to sound out Menon on evacuation mission

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By K.P. NAYAR in Washington
  • Published 7.03.09
Obama, Menon

Washington, March 7: The Obama administration will sound out foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon on Monday on India’s support for a US-led invasion of Sri Lanka to evacuate nearly 200,000 Tamil civilians trapped inside territory controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam with precariously declining stocks of food or medicine.

“We had some people there to look at the situation to identify what the possibilities might be. We would do whatever we can to help these people,” assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs Richard Boucher told a group of South Asian journalists yesterday.

The plan to be put before Menon, who will have a series of meetings here with officials of the new US administration from Monday, is for a marine expeditionary brigade attached to the US Pacific Command (PACOM) to go into Sri Lanka with the support of the US navy and air force, according to American sources privy to the plan.

A team from PACOM was in Colombo a fortnight ago to discuss the outlines of the plan with the Sri Lankan Army, these sources told The Telegraph.

At the time of the PACOM team’s visit, the US state department sent James Moore, deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Colombo, to Jaffna peninsula for an independent assessment of the situation there. Moore’s report is said to have persuaded Hillary Clinton’s state department to line up behind the idea of a US-led evacuation of Tamils.

If the invasion comes about, it will be the first time that the Obama administration will flex its muscle overseas in a new show of American power.

The initiative is expected to have a mixed reaction here, especially among groups opposed to US military actions, which backed Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

But spinmasters of the Obama administration have quietly begun work here to describe any such military mission as a “coalition humanitarian task force”.

However, if the humanitarian task force lands in Sri Lanka before the LTTE lays down arms as demanded by Colombo or without agreement from the Tamil Tigers, who may fire on the task force, its mission will be tantamount to an invasion leading to possible US casualties.

Yesterday, Boucher spoke on telephone to Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama. The two men discussed “Boucher’s concern over the fate of the civilian population being held hostage by the LTTE in the tiny coastal pocket in the Mullaitivu district,” according to a foreign ministry press release issued in Colombo today.

Any request by the Americans for Indian support for a US-led military mission in Sri Lanka is likely to put Menon in a spot.

There are serious differences in the Indian government on how to deal with the mounting crisis in its southern backyard with the national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan, opposed to any support for military action.

Narayanan’s main concern is a possible fallout on the Lok Sabha elections as the result of an evacuation without the explicit approval of the LTTE and any consequent spilling of Tamil blood.

But external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee is aware that if a US-led rescue of Tamil civilians takes place without any role for India beyond that of a spectator, New Delhi will suffer grave loss to its reputation as a regional power and an emerging global power.

The possibility of an international rescue effort led by the US loomed large during the weekend with France reportedly expressing support for Washington’s efforts.

On Friday, John Holmes, the UN’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, briefed the Security Council that he had urged the Sri Lankan government during a visit to Colombo “to do all it could to make it possible for the civilian population to get out safely, including by means of agreement to a temporary halt to hostilities or a humanitarian corridor to allow people to leave, if this could be arranged and agreed, and in general ensure a peaceful, orderly and humane end to the fighting”.

Last week, Mukherjee displeased the Sri Lankan government by asking Colombo to accept a ceasefire offer by the LTTE. “While this may fall short of a declaration of willingness to lay down arms, it is our view that the government of Sri Lanka should seize the opportunity presented by the offer to bring about a pause in the hostilities.”

The Sri Lankan government is demanding that the LTTE should lay down arms and has responded to Mukherjee with the stand that “once they (LTTE) lay down arms, it would automatically lead to a ceasefire”.