NATIONAL

Wickremesinghe backs Norway on FM broadcast issue

COLOMBO. Jan. 3. Political cohabitation between Sri Lanka's sharply opposed political leaders - the President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, and the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe - today touched a new low with Mr. Wickremesinghe striking a note of "caution'' to the President on her "intended intervention'' in controversy relating to the import of FM broadcasting equipment for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

In his reply to Ms. Kumaratunga, released to the media tonight, Mr. Wickremesinghe said: "I must urge a note of caution in your intended intervention with the Prime Minister of Norway''.

Strongly backing the Norwegian role, Mr. Wickremesinghe said: "as a Government, we should exercise due care, at this critical state in the peace process, to ensure that the enthusiasm of the Norwegian facilitation and the momentum this far generated continued undiminished''.

Mr. Wickremesinghe explained the involvement of the Norwegian facilitation on the grounds that if the imported equipment had items that were not cleared, they could be sent back. "If the consignment was found to contain anything other than what was intended, the Government was going to disallow import and send the consignment back''.

It may be recalled that the import of FM broadcasting equipment for the LTTE's Voice of Tigers (VoT) had sparked a controversy in the island with the Opposition charging the Norwegian of "breach of diplomatic immunity'' as the equipment was consigned to the Norwegian embassy.

Ms. Kumaratunga on December 30 wrote to Mr. Wickremesinghe as well as the Norwegian Prime Minister, expressing her concern on the issue

There have been sharp calls from the Opposition on the President to take strong action against Oslo's envoy here, Jon Westborg.

The Ranil Wickremesinghe administration had earlier justified the import of equipment as part of the positive developments on the peace process. In his letter today, the Prime Minister termed the present situation as a "paradigm shift'' which was "favourably recognised''.

Making the radio equipment available for the Tigers, he said was "one way of encouraging forward movement in this positive direction''. Backing Oslo's envoy here, the Prime Minister said: "Mr. Westborg has been in service here for almost six years and has an unrivalled experience of the ground realities''.

Even after his proposed departure from here later this year, his services would be continued to be used by the Norwegian Government he said.

On the specific concerns raised by the President, Mr. Wickremesinghe said the VSAT equipment was "not imported'' and pointed out that there were 42 such units operating in the island. Similarly on the FM frequency range, he said that the island's regulatory authority permitted it.

Apart from the domestic controversy over the import of the equipment, the plans announced by the Tigers to expand their broadcast "time and range'' could turn out to have an Indian impact. "Though the licence is only for a range of 20 km, the use of a network of boosters to increase the range to reach southern India is not ruled out.

It may be recalled that the Foreign Secretary, Kanwal Sibal, during the recent visit of Sri Lanka had said that the capabilities of the equipment were still unclear. If it had a range, capable of transmitting into southern India, we will evaluate it differently'', he had said.

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