(AFP) Sri Lanka announced Sunday 16 Indian fishermen would be released to coincide with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to New Delhi, his first overseas trip since winning last month’s general election.
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 starting Monday, his office said in a statement.
Wickremesinghe, and ally 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, Sirisena dislodged former strongman Mahinda Rajapakse who had relied heavily on India’s regional rival China for economic and political support.
Sirisena, who immediately appointed Wickremesinghe prime minister, has tried to repair relations with the West and India that soured during Rajapakse’s rule.
"The two sides will focus on strengthening Indo-Sri Lanka relations, regional peace and reconciliation during the two-day visit," Wickremesinghe’s office said.
Wickremesinghe is due to hold talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other Indian leaders during the visit.
Fishermen from the two countries often stray into each others’ rich fishing waters, creating a thorny issue for Colombo and Delhi.
But the two countries often release arrested fishermen ahead of official visits in a diplomatic show of cooperation.
In March, Modi visited Sri Lanka, the first by an Indian premier in 28 years, underscoring the desire to reset relations with the new Colombo administration.
During his decade in power, Rajapakse had caused unease in Delhi by forging close ties with Beijing. India, which traditionally regarded Sri Lanka as within its sphere of influence, was furious last year when Rajapakse allowed two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo.
Beijing had also sided with Sri Lanka on the international stage when Rajapakse 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. (Colombo/Sept13/2015)