600 Indian Troops Depart Sri Lanka in Token Pullout
India staged a token withdrawal of 600 soldiers Saturday and opened negotiations with Sri Lanka on the departure of the rest of its 45,000 troops sent to quell ethnic violence in this island nation.
Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who had demanded the removal of “the last Indian soldier” by the end of July, sought to portray Saturday’s hastily arranged withdrawal as a victory for his government.
But the action may be viewed as too little and too late to stop escalating assassinations and attacks on Premadasa’s government by ultranationalist members of the Sinhalese ethnic majority.
The radicals oppose an Indian-brokered peace plan to grant limited autonomy to minority Tamils in the north and east of this island off India’s southern coast.
Indian peacekeeping forces, initially numbering about 2,000, arrived in Sri Lanka on July 30, 1987, to supervise the surrender of arms by Tamil guerrillas under terms of the peace accord but the largest Tamil militant group reneged on the agreement.
The Indian force swelled at one point to a peak of at least 70,000 soldiers who became bogged down in their own jungle war with Tamil rebels. About 1,000 Indian soldiers are among the estimated 11,000 people who have died in the six-year insurrection.
Both Indian and Sri Lankan officials said they did not know when more Indian troops would leave. Sri Lankan and Indian officials began three days of talks in New Delhi on Saturday on the issue. Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aftab Seth said the talks “have so far been successful.” He did not elaborate.
The troop ship, called the Magar, whose Hindi name means crocodile, left the port city of Trincomalee on Saturday night, Sri Lanka’s state-run radio reported. It was expected to reach the Indian port of Madras today.
Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe, commander of the Sri Lankan army whose troops in Trincomalee and the rest of the northeast have been confined to their camps since the Indian forces arrived, said: “This is a token gesture and the rest will follow.”