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Indian aid offer to Tamils draws Sri Lankan rebuke. Colombo says bid infringes sovereignty

As the Sri Lankan government's week-long military offensive continues on the northern tip of the island, India has announced plans to send a humanitarian relief mission to Tamil civilians in the area. The aid would be sent through the Indian Red Cross Society, and its workers would ``attempt to distribute the supplies directly to the persons needing relief,'' the government said yesterday. But the Sri Lankan government says it will oppose India's plan.

Although Sri Lanka had earlier said it would consider accepting the supplies and jointly working out the distribution process with India, officials said India's plan was ``a clear infringement of our sovereignty that we will have to oppose.''

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India's move comes a week after Colombo launched its military assaults last Tuesday to gain a toe hold on the Jaffna Peninsula. In the last two years, Jaffna has been controlled by Tamil rebels fighting for autonomy or a separate state.

In a statement Monday, the Indian government said: ``The [people] of Jaffna, already suffering ... under the five-month old economic blockade imposed upon them by their own government, are now becoming the victims of an all-out military assault as part of what has been described as a `fight to the finish.' ... motivated by humanitarian considerations, the government and people of India propose to send urgently needed relief to Jaffna.''

Sri Lanka denies Indian allegations about ``an all-out military assault'' as part of any ``fight to the finish.'' The conflict, Colombo says, is the result of ``patronage of separatist terrorists'' by the government of Tamil Nadu, a south Indian state. And, Colombo says, the situation does not require outside assistance. At press time, there was no further response from Colombo specifically on the planned relief mission.

India's move is being viewed in some circles as a provocative step that might escalate the military conflict in Sri Lanka and, perhaps, in the region. India's role in Sri Lanka's ethnic strife - a conflict which many now say has turned into a civil war - is seen as crucial to the current situation.

Colombo's offensive comes after the failure of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's efforts to mediate a political settlement between Colombo and the Tamil rebels.

In the last few days, pressures from the Tamil Nadu state government, opposition politicians, and opinion makers have been mounting on Mr. Gandhi to take decisive action to end the attacks affecting the estimated 900,000 Tamils in Jaffna. Gandhi is particularly vulnerable to political pressures in Tamil Nadu State, whose 50-million-strong Tamil population are ethnic kin to the Sri Lankan Tamils. Tamil Nadu also serves as a sanctuary and operations base for rebel groups.

There are unconfirmed reports of recent arms supplies from Tamil Nadu to the Tamil rebels. The Tamil Nadu State government is reportedly giving $3.3 million as ``aid'' to Sri Lankan Tamils, which Colombo claims will be used to buy arms. India's relief convoy, according to a government spokesman, is set to sail from south India tomorrow. The spokesman said the convoy would be unarmed and not accompanied by military escorts. The spokesman said India has also invited their Sri Lankan Red Cross to inspect the supplies to be sent to Jaffna.

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However, it is unclear whether the Indian government will push through with the relief mission in the face of Colombo's opposition.

There have been conflicting reports on the number of casualties in the recent fighting because of the telecommunications blockade imposed by the Sri Lankan government on Jaffna early this year.

Tamil rebel groups have claimed some 600 Tamils have been killed and hundreds injured in the offensive. Colombo puts the figure much lower - around 40.

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