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Modi urges security cooperation on landmark Sri Lanka trip

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for greater security cooperation with Sri Lanka on Friday during a landmark visit to the strategically located Indian Ocean island, whose drift towards China has raised concerns in New Delhi. Modi told Sri Lanka's parliament a "strong foundation of security" in the Indian Ocean was necessary for regional prosperity, as he began the first official visit to the island by an Indian premier in 28 years, Sri Lanka is a midway point on one of the world's busiest international shipping lanes and lies just across the water from India, but Beijing has asserted growing strategic influence in recent years as it seeks to secure its trading routes. Modi has made clear his ambition to reassert India's dominance in its own backyard since taking office, and his comments underscored the rivalry between the two neighbours, although he did not mention China by name. "A future of prosperity requires a strong foundation of security for our countries and peace and stability in the region," Modi told the 225-member assembly. "We should expand the maritime security cooperation between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives to include others in the Indian Ocean area." Modi said he and new President Maithripala Sirisena had agreed to set up a task force to focus on an "ocean economy" that could have strategic interests for both. India has traditionally regarded Sri Lanka as within its sphere of influence, and was furious last year when Rajapakse allowed two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo. Beijing also bankrolled a major expansion of the island's infrastructure under its former president Mahinda Rajapakse. But his successor has worked to reduce the country's dependence on Beijing and last month ordered a suspension of China's biggest investment project, a $1.4 billion new city on reclaimed land next to Colombo's main sea port. Modi pledged Indian financial aid amounting to $1.81 billion during his visit, part of a tour of Indian Ocean islands that took in Mauritius and the Seychelles. The figure includes a $1.5 billion currency swap to help stabilise Sri Lanka's currency. He said India would help develop a regional petroleum hub in the north-eastern port city of Trincomalee, a strategic staging post for allied forces during WWII. - Autonomy for Tamils - Modi will become the first Indian prime minister to visit the northern Tamil stronghold of Jaffna during his two-day visit. On Friday he urged the new government to give greater autonomy to the region, which was hit hard by the country's 37-year civil war and remained heavily militarised after the conflict ended in 2009. Tamils should be able to live "a life of equality, justice, peace and dignity in a united Sri Lanka," Modi said in Colombo shortly after holding talks with Sirisena. He called for the "early and full implementation" of a 1987 constitutional provision that envisaged political autonomy for the Tamils, who are concentrated in the island's north. Sirisena has promised to work on reconciliation between the Tamils and the Sinhalese majority after ousting Rajapakse, who oversaw the brutal military suppression of a separatist rebellion in 2009. Rajapakse won praise for ending the 37-year civil war that had ravaged the island and killed at least 100,000 people, mostly Tamils, but has also faced accusations of overseeing widespread rights abuses. Sri Lanka's Tamils share close cultural and religious ties with those across the Palk Strait in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and New Delhi was closely involved in the civil war. - 'New page in relations' - Modi is the first Indian prime minister to visit the island since Rajiv Gandhi in 1987, and Sirisena said after their meeting he wanted to "turn a new page in our relations". Gandhi had gone to Colombo to sign a pact that sought to end a guerrilla war by Tamil separatist rebels who had effectively enjoyed a safe haven in India since the mid 1980s. The main rebel group, the Tamil Tigers, repudiated the peace accord that set up the Tamil devolution plan and India ended up fighting the militants they had once trained and armed. Around 1,140 Indian soldiers lost their lives during the 32-month deployment in Sri Lanka and Gandhi himself was assassinated in 1991 by a female Tiger suicide bomber while campaigning in Tamil Nadu.