Reports of Sri Lankans rescued in Ukraine put Colombo in spot

Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reportedly said seven Sri Lankans, who were held by the “invading Russian forces since March” in Kharkiv, had been rescued from “torture chambers”.

Published - September 23, 2022 10:33 pm IST - COLOMBO

Sri Lanka citizens, who Ukrainian authorities say had been held by Russian forces since March and were rescued during a counteroffensive operation of Ukrainian Armed Forces, attend a news conference in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on September 18, 2022.

Sri Lanka citizens, who Ukrainian authorities say had been held by Russian forces since March and were rescued during a counteroffensive operation of Ukrainian Armed Forces, attend a news conference in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on September 18, 2022. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Recent media reports of Ukrainian authorities rescuing seven Sri Lankans from the Kharkiv region have put Colombo, which maintains close ties with Russia, on a sticky diplomatic wicket.

Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reportedly said seven Sri Lankans, who were held by the “invading Russian forces since March” in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine, had been rescued from “torture chambers”. Mr. Zelenskyy drew attention to the “seven citizens of Sri Lanka”, who were “students of Kupiansk Medical College”. “Back in March, they had been captured by Russian soldiers and subsequently kept in a basement. Only now, after the liberation of the Kharkiv region, were these people rescued. They are being provided with proper medical care,” he was quoted as saying by a Ukrainian media outlet, widely cited by Sri Lankan media.

The development came as a shock to many in Sri Lanka, as there had been no reports of Sri Lankans missing in Ukraine or being held in captive by Russian forces. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Sri Lankan authorities facilitated the return of over 90 Sri Lankans, including 16 students living in Ukraine. According to official sources in Colombo, Sri Lanka was not aware of seven other Sri Lankans caught or trapped in Ukraine.

Reporting from Kharkiv this week, BBC said the Sri Lankans were imprisoned, forced into labour and “even tortured” during the last four months. “We thought we would never get out alive,” one of the men in the rescued group was quoted as saying, while another showed an injury from alleged torture.

Close contact

Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on September 17 said it had requested the Ukrainian government ‘to ascertain the veracity of the news item”, as well as to provide more information on it “as a matter of priority’, and is awaiting a response, according to an official. Colombo is in “close communication” with the Ukrainian Government through the Sri Lanka Embassy in Ankara which is concurrently accredited to Ukraine, as well as through the Ukrainian Embassy in New Delhi, the Ministry said in its statement last week.

Meanwhile, officials in Colombo told local media that the seven Sri Lankans were not students but “illegal immigrants” trying to flee the island nation’s economic distress and claimed they did not wish to return. Following the crisis this year, the Sri Lankan Navy has intercepted a total of 966 persons so far. They were on illegal boats and trying to migrate to allegedly to Australia and Europe, a Navy official told The Hindu.

Another 229 persons found in hotels along coastal districts were also apprehended, the official said. However, it remains unclear where exactly the seven Sri Lankans are from and how they ended up in Ukraine.

Speaking to The Hindu, a senior official at the Foreign Ministry said the development must be seen in the context of Sri Lanka’s position in regard to Russia’s war on Ukraine. “Our position is somewhat like India’s,” the official said, requesting anonymity, owing to “diplomatic sensitivities”.

Deeply concerned

Soon after the invasion in February, the Government of Sri Lanka said it was “deeply concerned” about the escalation of violence and urged “all parties” concerned to exercise “maximum restraint and work towards the immediate cessation of hostilities, to maintain peace, security and stability in the region.” “Ukraine and other actors backing it were unhappy with our position, they expressed displeasure,” the Foreign Ministry official said, suggesting that the current development was possibly a “pressure” tactic. On the claims of torture, the official said: “We need to verify that.”

Sri Lanka has traditionally had strong diplomatic ties with Russia, and the two countries are marking 65 years of diplomatic relations this year. At the height of the fuel shortages in Sri Lanka in July, former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for help with urgent fuel supplies.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in

Comments

Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.