Free movement of goods from Jan. 15: Ranil

CHENNAI, DEC. 22. The Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, said here today that a free movement of goods to the northern parts of the island would begin on January 15 next.

Mr. Wickremesinghe, who had a brief stopover here on his way to New Delhi on a three-day State visit to India, told The Hindu: ``I will begin to work on the mechanics and logistics of lifting curbs on movement as soon as I return to Colombo. It will take a couple of weeks to get things in place and the Thai Pongal will be an ideal occasion for us to get started''.

He said the United National Front had promised in its manifesto to lift the ``sanctions'' and allow the normal flow of goods to the north and east. The Cabinet had decided to implement the promise as soon as possible.

Welcoming the unilateral cessation of hostilities by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Mr. Wickremesinghe said the Government had decided to reciprocate the gesture and the ceasefire would come into force from December 24. ``With normal movement of goods and the peace process, I am confident the ceasefire can also continue without any deadline,'' he noted.

Asked if he had confidence in the LTTE discussing the real and substantive issues during future talks, the Prime Minister said, ``We are taking care of the humanitarian and development concerns on our own. There is nothing to negotiate on that. It is our commitment to the people. When the talks begin, they will have to be on substantive issues''.

He explained that he had set up three committees to assist in the process - the first was an advisory group, which also included leaders from the opposition People's Alliance; the second was a smaller group which would take care of the day-to- day problems and administrative issues and the third panel would try to speed up the process besides looking at the options available on each issue.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said he was keen on meeting the Indian leaders as soon as possible, so that he could get on with the peace process. Apart from the ethnic issue, he would like to take up a range of economic issues with New Delhi.

Describing the Sri Lankan economy as being in a ``critical'' condition, the Prime Minister said it had sunk into negative growth this year. He would like to build on economic ties with India. Though he would not go into finer details this time, he wanted to touch on the broad spectrum of trade and industrial links between the two neighbours. He was very keen on taking up a ``land bridge'' between Mannar and Tamil Nadu in the hope that peace would soon dawn on the island. If both the countries agreed on the concept, a feasibility study could be taken up, he added.

Accompanied by his Foreign Minister, Mr. Tyronne Fernando, other Ministers and senior officials as well as advisers, Mr. Wickremesinghe, will meet all top Indian leaders both in the Government and the Opposition during his two-day stay in New Delhi.

In a brief interaction with the media soon after his arrival, the Prime Minister said he knew that the ``road to peace was difficult, but he had to walk the path''. He was confident there would be peace in Sri Lanka soon.