COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Sri Lanka's former civil war zone on Saturday, in a sign of solidarity with minority Tamils who are calling for regional autonomy to end a decades-old ethnic conflict.
Modi's visit to the Tamil heartland in the island nation's north, the first by an Indian prime minister, came a day after he called for greater autonomy for the Tamils during talks with Sri Lankan officials. He is on a two-day state visit to India's neighbor.
During his visit to north, Modi commissioned a section of railway track built with Indian aid in Talaimannar and ceremonially began the construction work of a cultural center to be built in the town of Jaffna with Indian assistance. Jaffna is the cultural heartland of the Tamils and was the stage of many battles during Sri Lanka's quarter century civil war.
The war ended in 2009 when government forces defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels, who were fighting to create a separate state for Tamils in the country's north and east.
Since the war's end, India has been calling on Sri Lanka to share power with the Tamils in order to promote reconciliation.
India has a strong interest in the issue because southern India is home to 60 million Tamils. India's government, however, has been reluctant to become directly involved in Sri Lankan politics since a disastrous military intervention during the civil war left more than 1,000 Indian troops dead.
The military intervention followed an agreement between India and Sri Lanka that led to an amendment of Sri Lanka's constitution and established provincial councils in an effort to end Tamil militancy.
During his talks Friday with Sri Lankan leaders, Modi said the full implementation of the particular amendment "and going beyond it would contribute to" building and promoting equality, justice, peace and dignity in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka's former government promised to allow a greater degree of autonomy for the Tamil-majority regions, but later backtracked, saying it would take back the land and police powers given to the provincial councils. At the time, Indian leaders expressed dismay at the move.
The current Sri Lankan government, which came to power in January, has promised to work toward ethnic reconciliation.
Sri Lanka is the last leg of Modi's tour of the region, during which he has sought to woo smaller Indian Ocean states away from increasing Chinese influence.
Modi is the first Indian leader to visit Sri Lanka in 28 years, reciprocating the trip to India last month by Sri Lanka's new president, Maithripala Sirisena. In 1987, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi traveled to Sri Lanka to sign a peace accord in an effort to end the Tamil uprising, which was then in its early years.
During his visit, Gandhi narrowly escaped serious injury when a Sri Lankan sailor hit him with his rifle butt during a guard of honor inspection. Four years later, the Tamil Tigers assassinated Gandhi during an election rally in southern India.