‘Equal Rights’ for Sinhalese, Muslims under JM
By Frances Bulathsinghala
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentary Group leader and TULF Secretary General R. Sampandan informed Indian External Affairs Minister, K. Natwar Singh that the Muslims as well as the Sinhalese would be given 'equal rights' in the event of the Joint Mechanism with the LTTE being implemented.

Mr. Sampandan told The Sunday Times yesterday that during a discussion between TNA members and the Indian External Affairs Minister last Friday, the TNA had highlighted that they were 'deeply concerned' in addressing the concerns of the north-east residing Muslims.

"Minister Natwar Singh was pleased with our response. We told him that we considered the Muslims as our brothers and that we wanted the Joint Mechanism to address concerns regarding the Muslims", said Mr. Sampandan.

"We also told him that we are pleased with the bilateral agreement signed between India and Sri Lanka and that we would want India to play a strong role in the country's peace process", he added but refused to comment on the proposed Defence Pact with India.

India and Sri Lanka, entering into a bilateral agreement to primarily boost the industries and education sectors, hinted that a Defence Pact was on the cards, with Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar confirming that the UPFA government would accept New Delhi's help for Air Defence.

"We will certainly accept the defence assistance but we cannot say at present when it would take the form of an agreement", Minister Kadirgamar told journalists.

"The Indian stand is that it would support a peaceful solution to the country's ethnic issue as long as it is acceptable to all communities within a framework of a united country", Minister Natwar Singh told the media soon after signing the bilateral agreement. India and Sri Lanka signed two agreements relating to educational programmes and grass roots development projects in terms of infrastructure.

The other areas of cooperation would be in the field of Tourism and Aviation cooperation where luxury cruises between the two countries would be initiated. Mr. Natwar Singh left the country yesterday after talks with President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and members of other political parties including the TNA and the SLMC.

UNP sources said the Indian Minister had reiterated the UNP stand that the Joint Mechanism agreement would have to be within the limits of the Oslo and Tokyo declarations.

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