After months of difficult negotiations, Sri Lanka on Monday released 52 Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu at the same time as India let go an equal number of Sri Lankan fishermen held in Chennai, starting the process of sending back all fishermen detained by both sides before bilateral talks on the issue later this month. The exchange began shortly after External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid spoke to his Sri Lankan counterpart G.L. Peiris on Monday.

“Taking into account the humanitarian nature of the problem,” a Sri Lankan foreign ministry statement said, “and difficulties resulting from long-term incarceration to livelihoods and lives of family members of the fishermen, the two governments had decided to release the fishermen presently in custody in India and in Sri Lanka as expeditiously as possible.”

The statement described the initiative as “a goodwill reciprocal gesture commencing from 13 January” ahead of the Pongal festival and “a reflection of the strong bilateral relations”.

Shortly after, a magistrate court in Mallakam near Jaffna ordered the release of 20 Indian fishermen in custody there. The released fishermen are from different parts of Tamil Nadu such as Ramanathapuram, Pudukkottai and Thanjavur.

Separately, a court in Trincomalee in Northeastern Sri Lanka ordered the release of 32 Indian fishermen, bringing the total number of Indian fishermen released to 52.

Matching Sri Lanka, India first released 20, and hours later, another group of 32 Sri Lankan fishermen lodged in Puzhal central prison near Chennai.

U. Arulanandam, Tamil Nadu representative of the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen, welcomed the release on both sides and appealed that the fishermen’s boats, their main means of their livelihood, should also be released.

Thanking Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and all others involved in the process, he demanded the release of five other fishermen arrested near Katchatheevu by the Sri Lankan Navy on 28 November, 2011. He alleged the fishermen had been booked in a false case of possessing drugs.

“The process of releasing the fishermen will not be complete without their release,” he said.

The Sri Lankan Navy will hand over the Indian fishermen released on Monday to the Indian Coast Guard at sea. The transfer is expected to take place anytime in the next 36-48 hours.

It is not clear if the 32 fishermen released in Trincomalee will be sent home at the same time as the 20 from Jaffna.

The released Sri Lankan fishermen are staying at the Sri Lanka Mahabodhi Centre in Chennai. “Since the next two days are holidays due to Pongal, we will not be able to process their travel papers. The flights are also operating full these days,” the diplomat told The Hindu .

With this, the stage is set for the representatives of fishermen from both sides to meet on January 20 to find ways to end their conflict over the marine resources in the Palk Bay area. Before that, Mr. Senaratne is scheduled to meet Indian Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar in New Delhi on January 15.

After Monday’s release of 52 Indian fishermen, over 200 fishermen remain in Sri Lanka’s northern, north western and eastern provinces. On the Indian side, 118 Sri Lankan fishermen now remain in Tamil Nadu prisons.

(With additional reporting by Sandeep Dikshit in New Delhi)