Twenty-three Tamil Nadu fishermen, who were arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy on June 20, will be released in the next two days, says a State government release issued here on Friday.

The release said Sri Lanka has given an assurance to India that the fishermen would be released in the next two days.

They were taken into custody along with five boats as they had ventured into the Sri Lankan waters.

On hearing of the arrest, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressing her distress over the arrest and demanded their safe release. She also asked Chief Secretary Debendranath Sarangi to be in constant touch with the Centre to ensure their early release.

Mr. Sarangi was in touch with National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon and other officials.

Based on the follow-up action, the Centre said that they had received an assurance from the Sri Lankan government in this regard.

‘Legal process not completed'

R.K. Radhakrishnan reports from Colombo:

There was no communication on Friday from the Attorney General's office to the Mannar Magistrate on the release of the fishermen, sources said. “The AG's office has not completed the legal process,” Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L.Peiris told The Hindu, when asked if a weekend release of the fishermen was possible.

Prof.Peiris said this was not an isolated issue and that the whole gamut of issues relating to the fishermen was being discussed at appropriate fora, including the Indo-Sri Lankan Joint Working Group on Fisheries and the representatives of fisheries association from both countries.

Asked if Sri Lanka did not want to expedite the release of fishermen as a goodwill gesture to the Jayalalithaa government, Prof.Peiris said there were many Sri Lankan fishermen in Indian jails too. The modalities of the release of all the fishermen were being worked out.

Meanwhile, a controversy has arisen over the equipment on board the five boats that were apprehended five nautical miles off Talaimannar. The Sri Lankan side has made it clear that the boats were equipped with GPS and hence was sure about their position. In essence, the argument here is that the fishermen knew they were fishing in the Sri Lankan territorial waters and even they did not make an attempt to return to the Indian side of the International Maritime Boundary Line.

A leader of the Fishermen's cooperative movement in Tamil Nadu, Arulanandam contested this claim that all boats had GPS facility. “About 25 per cent of our boats have GPS. Of the five boats, I am told that only one had the facility,” he told The Hindu.

He said that he was in touch with his counterparts in Mannar and hoped that the fishermen would be released on Monday.

The 23 fishermen have been shifted from Vavuniya into the Anuradhapura jail.