The Web Sri Lanka In Focus

Thursday, 31 January 2008

UPA Govt may put Ram Setu project on hold

The contentious Sethu Samundaram project is likely to be put on hold as after facing uproar from the Sangh Parivar over the issue, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government has been looking for a face saver that would allow it to exit the project.

The government's political reluctance has now been bolstered by a military caveat after the Navy chief and the Coast Guard Director General said that the project is a security threat.

The military establishment has warned that dredging a channel out of Adam's Bridge or Ram Setu will create a serious security problem for India.

"By virtue of the close boundary lines between Sri Lanka and us, obviously the implications are there for the security," Vice-Admiral RF Contractor, DG Coast Guard, warned.

The Coast Guard DG's warning comes close on the heels of reservations expressed by Navy Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta.

And with the armed forces going public with their view, it's clear that the UPA Government cleared the contentious Rs 2,500 crore project without a proper security audit.

"Expert bodies like the Coast Guard Chiefs are raising matters of serious security concern, then it is a matter that ought to be factored into by the Government of India," BJP spokesperson Ravi Shanker Prasad said.

The Congress would rather be out of the controversy though the development immensely suits their present political stand - delay any stand and it seems to be finding a way out of an embarrassing situation.

"The chief of the Naval Staff may have said or the coast guard may said but these are all that will be inputs before the government before they take a decision or before they go ahead," Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan said.

The bitter political spat over the Sethu Samundaram project has been focused around the existence of Lord Ram.

With India's security establishment now going public with its grave reservations about this proposed channel, it's perhaps a signal that the project should be debated rationally on its merits.

Source: CNN-IBN

Three firms bid for S.Lanka oil exploration

By Shihar Aneez

COLOMBO, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka has received six tenders from three foreign companies for oil exploration in its northwestern offshore Mannar basin, the island's petroleum resource minister said on Thursday.

"We have got six tenders. They are from Cairn India (CAIL.BO: Quote, Profile, Reserch), ONGC Videsh (ONGC.BO: Quote, Profile, Research) from India and Nico Resources from Cyprus," Minister A.H.M. Fowzie told Reuters.

"All three companies have bid for the first block, while Cairn India and Nico Resources have bid for the second block. The third block has received only one bid from Nico Resources."

The first block is the smallest out of the three with 3338.1 square kilometres, while the third block is the largest with an area of 4126.5 square kilometres.

Sri Lanka has eight exploration blocks in the Mannar basin, three of which are to be given for exploration once the government decides on a successful bidder.

Two have been assigned to China and India on nomination basis. The government plans to delay bidding on the last three blocks to get higher revenue.

Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC), which was offered the block nominated to India said in September it was not interested in the assigned block, citing low prospectivity and the fact that Sri Lanka was asking for a big signature bonus.

The Sri Lankan government later said it would negotiate with ONGC for a new oil block. The outcome of the negotiation has not yet been revealed.

The bidding process was closed on Thursday and the government expects to select the best three bidders by April 2008 and to start the oil exploration process by August.

The non-oil producing nation expects its first commercial crude oil production by 2010.

Prior to the bidding, the Sri Lankan government had said oil exploration licences would be awarded to firms that can provide most advanced technological and economic benefit to Sri Lanka.

A 35 percent tax from net profit, 10 percent royalty fee of annual production revenue, and allowing the planned National Oil Exploration Company to invest 10 percent in exploration activities were the conditions put forwarded by the government.

Signature bonds, production bonds, and profit sharing ratio are to be considered in selecting the best three bidders.

Roadshows to attract investors were held in London, Houston and Kuala Lumpur in September last year.

The government says seismic data shows more than a billion barrels of oil lie under the sea off Sri Lanka's northwest coast, though no reserves have yet been proven.

If proven, the reserves would be a major boost for the war-torn country, which produces no oil and imported $2.2 billion worth in the first 11 months of 2007.

Source: Reuters

Japan threatens to cut aid to Sri Lanka

Japan today warned it could be forced to review its aid policy if military action keeps escalating, but said it hoped to provide long-term support to bring peace, Japan's special peace envoy Yasushi Akashi said.

Source: Dailymirror

Web disturbances set to continue

Disruption to internet services in south Asia and the Middle East is continuing the day after Mediterranean undersea cables were damaged.

Operations outsourced to India from the UK and US are badly hit, said an industry body, adding that 50% of India's bandwidth was affected.

Egypt has about 40% of its internet capacity, following damage to a cable thought to be off its northern coast.

It could take a week or more to restore full services, say experts.

Further disruption has been reported in Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

'Bad delay'

India is the world leader in offshore outsourcing, with the remote servicing of IT or other business processes worth an estimated £24bn.

"The companies that serve the US east coast and the UK are worst affected," said Rajesh Chharia, president of the Internet Service Providers' Association of India.

He told the Associated Press (AP): "The delay is very bad in some cases.

"They have to arrange back-up plans or they have to accept the poor quality for the time being until the fibre is restored."

Major companies including IBM and Intel were still trying to assess how their operations had been impacted, AP reported.

An official in Egypt's Ministry of Communications and Information Technology said that the cause of the cable damage would not be known until repair ships and divers could get to the site.

Rough seas and weather were delaying that operation, he said, adding that the repairs could take as much as a week.

'Two cuts'

On Wednesday, a Dubai internet service provider (ISP), DU, blamed services disruption on "cuts in two international submarine cable systems in the Mediterranean Sea".

The company said: "We are working actively with the submarine cable system operators (FLAG Telecom and SEA-ME-WE 4) to ascertain the reasons for the cables being cut," it said.

FLAG Telecoms operate the Fiber-Optic Link Around the Globe (FLAG), a 28,000km (17,400 mile) long submarine communications cable.

SEA-ME-WE 4, or the South East Asia-Middle East-West Europe 4 project, is a submarine cable linking South East Asia to Europe via the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East.

Neither of the cable operators have confirmed the cause or location of the outage but some reports suggest it was caused by a ship's anchor near the port of Alexandria in Egypt.

There was disruption to 70% of the nationwide internet network in Egypt on Wednesday, while India suffered up to 60% disruption.

International telephone calls, which have also been affected, are being rerouted to work around the problem.

Source: BBC

Internet outage hits business from Cairo to Colombo

Damage to undersea Internet cables hit business across the Middle East and South Asia on Thursday, including the vital call centre industry, prompting calls for people to limit their surfing.

Around 70 percent of Internet users in Egypt have been affected since two submarine cables in the Mediterranean Sea were damaged on Wednesday, also rupturing connections thousands of kilometres (miles) away.

The cause of the damage is not yet known.

State-owned Saudi Telecom reported the loss of more than 50 percent of its international lines, and said it did not know when normal service would be restored, the Arab News reported.

Egypt's telecommunications ministry said repairs would take "at least a week" and appealed for users not to overload the backup system with hefty downloads and file-sharing applications.

"Two of our cables are affected; everyone will go onto a third cable," ministry spokesman Mohammed Taymur told AFP. "But that will not be enough bandwidth. The cable will be overloaded and no one will be able to get access."

"People should know how to use the Internet because people who download music and films are going to affect businesses who have more important things to do."

Taymur said a company had been asked to repair the cables but that "for the time being we don't know the cause. The two cables are a kilometre (over half a mile) apart and we don't know what could have affected both at the same time."

Like India, Egypt has a major call centre industry which has been affected by the outage, with a telecommunications ministry statement saying productivity was down to 30 percent.

The statement named other affected Arab countries as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Qatar and Bahrain.

Egyptian blogger The Arabist said he would "resume posting after the problem is resolved" and predicted, with a hint of sarcasm, "complete social breakdown in vast swathes of (upmarket Cairo districts) Heliopolis and Mohandiseen as thousands are unable to update their Facebook status."

Bahrain's Batelco issued a statement appealing for people to limit use to browsing and email but to refrain from file-sharing applications which require more bandwidth.

Gas-rich Qatar said that less than 40 percent of its Internet services were affected but that international phone lines were functioning normally.

The Al-Raya daily quoted one of national operator QTel's directors as saying that repairs in the Mediterranean could take up to two weeks.

In Muscat, OmanTel issued a statement saying it had reestablished 76 percent of Internet services by Thursday.

In Kuwait, the government said "weather conditions and maritime traffic" had damaged two cables, affecting most of the region.

India's Internet-dependent outsourcing industry was also severely disrupted, with businesses saying it may take up to 15 days to return to normal.

"Information-technology companies, software companies and call centres that provide online services to the UK or the US East Coast are the worst affected," said Rajesh Chharia, president of the Internet Service Providers' Association of India.

India's 11 billion dollar outsourcing industry employs 700,000 people working for companies that deliver services ranging from answering customer queries to to analysing equity markets for global clients.

The industry serves clients mainly in the US and Europe that sought to cut costs by farming out work to the country.

Neighbouring Bangladesh was also hit, with an official from the state Telegraph and Telephone Board saying that "voice and data traffic bound for Europe and America is not working. It slowed down the Internet services in the country."

Another Bangladesh provider, BDCom, said it was running at a quarter of its usual capacity.

"Our operations have slowed down. All the ISPs and call centres have also experienced similar problems," said Sabbir Ahmed Suman, BDCom director and a senior member of the Bangladesh Internet Service Providers Association.

Sri Lanka also faced a drastic drop in service quality, according to Sri Lanka Telecom, the country's largest Internet service provider.

Source: AFP

Scam may have link to Tamil Tigers: cops

'They're obviously supporters'
The Toronto Sun

Fraud investigators suspect a group of four who swiped account information from British bank cards of swindling victims out of about $250,000.

But Toronto Police are also trying to determine if there's a link between the international scam and the Tamil Tigers. Police found posters supporting the rebel group, which has been locked in a decades-old battle with Sri Lanka for independence.

"They're obviously supporters of the group," said Det. Scott Wittemore of 42 Division.


He said calendars and posters were found in the homes of two suspects.

"That's the next question we're going to have to investigate," he said. "My suspicions are that money will be going there, but it's going to take us months to track that."

The four suspects, two from London, England, face 83 charges, including belonging to a criminal organization, an offence developed to combat organized crime groups.

"We feel that we've met the threshold," Wittemore said. "I mean, it's not like a group of school kids saying, 'Let's go and rob whatever.' I think we have a strong case, but it will be up to a judge."

Wittemore said a patrolling cruiser spotted the suspects' vehicle go through a stop sign Monday in the Brimley Rd. and Brimwood Blvd. area.


The uniformed officers then found 41 gift cards, raising suspicions of a fraud scheme. Police discovered that the magnetic strip on the back of the cards contained debit card information of legitimate bank customers from Britain.

Police raided a Markham hotel room on Woodbine Ave. and an Ellesmere Rd. home after the car was stopped.

Investigators seized two laptop computers, computer memory sticks, reader and writer hardware, travel documents and passports issued to the suspects, a pinhole camera device, $25,000 in Canadian $20 bills and receipts for money transfers to people in the U.K. In total, 88 bogus ATM cards were seized.

Pratheepan Thambu, 22, and Lojanand Srianandan, 27, both of Toronto, and Sethukavalar Saravanabavan, 35, and Kirubakaran Selvanayagam Pillai, 38, of London, England, are to appear in a Scarborough court Friday.


Police explore Tamil link in fraud probe

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

A routine traffic stop has sparked a widening police probe of a debit-card fraud that may have funnelled funds to the outlawed Tamil Tigers.

After a visiting motorist failed to halt at a stop sign Monday, police in Scarborough's 42 Division searched his rented vehicle and found plastic cards carrying the debit data of bank customers in the United Kingdom.

Now four men face multiple charges of attempting to loot bank accounts in Britain. The four - two of them visitors from Britain and two of them Toronto residents - are all of Sri Lankan origin.

For now, the alleged scam is being treated as a relatively straightforward effort to steal tens of thousands of dollars from British bank-card holders via the international network of bank-teller machines.

But lead investigator Detective Scott Whittemore said yesterday that in visits to two Scarborough homes, police discovered calendars and posters promoting and lauding Sri Lanka's insurgent Tamil Tigers, a group outlawed in Canada.

And while voicing support for the group is not an offence, providing it with material support has been illegal since April of last year, when Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day announced that the Tamil Tigers had been added to Ottawa's list of proscribed terrorist groups.

The United States and the European Union have similarly blacklisted the organization.

Police are investigating whether any of the four men has financial ties to the Tigers. If the alleged fraud was intended to benefit the Tigers, it would not be the first time crime-derived funds have been funnelled to the group, but such connections are always hard to prove, Det. Whittemore said.

The four men were arrested when their rented car ran a stop sign and was examined. Police discovered 42 plastic bank cards in the car, and dozens more cards were found when police later raided a Brampton hotel and a home on Scarborough's Ellesmere Road.

And while it was unclear how much money was actually stolen, $25,000 in Canadian $20 bills was found in the raids, along with two laptop computers, computer memory sticks and hardware, pinhole cameras and passports and travel documents.

The four men will appear in court tomorrow for a bail hearing.

Canada's Tamil community numbers more than 200,000 people, two-thirds of whom live in the Toronto area. In their homeland, Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been locked in a war with the state in a conflict that has claimed at least 60,000 lives since 1972.

The Canadian Tamil Congress rejects suggestions the Tigers play any role in terrorism. But two days after last year's announcement outlawing the Tigers, RCMP raided the Montreal office of the World Tamil Movement, allegedly a front for Tiger fund-raising.

And in March of last year, a report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch went further than merely asserting that Canadian money is fuelling the insurgency. The report stated that in Toronto, Tamils acting on behalf of the Tigers have committed widespread extortion and intimidation against their compatriots.

"Families were typically pressed for between $2,500 and $5,000," the report's authors wrote, "while some businesses were asked for up to $100,000."

The CTC denounced the Human Rights Watch findings, calling them methodologically flawed and flat-out wrong.


S.Lanka's annual inflation edges up to 16.4 pct in Jan

Sri Lanka's annual inflation rate measured on a 12-month moving average stood at 16.4 percent in January on a new index, up from 15.8 percent in December, due to higher food and fuel prices, the government said on Thursday.

Consumer prices rose 20.8 percent in January from a year earlier, higher than an annual rise of 18.8 percent in December the Census and Statistics Department said.

"Prices of wheat and fuel increased considerably due to high global prices," said D.C.A. Gunawardhana, director at the department. "Vegetable prices also went up as there was a shortage in supply due to seasonality."

The Census and Statistics Department introduced the new index from December, saying the old measure was outdated.

Under the old index, which will be phased out in March, the annual inflation rate measured on a 12-month moving average stood at 17.6 percent in January, slightly up from 17.5 percent in December.

Consumer prices, according to the old index, rose 21.6 percent in January from a year earlier, higher than an annual rise of 16.4 percent in December.

Analysts said they blamed the government for high expenditure.

"Commodity price increases are a global phenomena. It's not unique to Sri Lanka," said Channa Amarathunga, an economist at Boston Capital. "So the government has to tighten its monetary policy and reduce government expenditure."

Despite high inflation, the central bank held its key policy rates steady in January for a 11 month, keeping the overnight repurchase rate at 10.5 percent and reverse repurchase rate at 12 percent.


Indian Coast Guard to acquire six maritime surveillance aircraft

Apprehending that security threats from the high seas could increase once key projects like Setu Samundram channel get under way, the Coast Guard plans to acquire six multi-mission maritime surveillance aircraft.

"Such aircraft would give us the capability to mount round the clock vigil around our coastline with eyes from the skies," Vice Admiral R F Contractor, Director General of the force, told mediapersons here on Thursday.

"We already have mounted a strong vigil on the country's southern coastal waters and projects like the Setu Samundram could bring in more security problems," he said.

But the Coast Guard chief said security measures would be put in place once the channel becomes operative. He said similar security apparatus has been put in place in other channels like Panama Canal, Malacca straits as well Suez Canal.

Asked if Coastguard had put its views on security threats perceptions before the Government, Contractor said both the Navy and Coastguard had been asked to give their views by the Government as a prelude to the project being cleared.

Contractor said that Coast Guard had mounted a round the clock aerial and sea vigil in the Palk Bay as well as Gulf of Mannar to guard against infiltration of Sri Lankan armed cadres into India.

Contrary to speculation, Contractor said that number of Tamil migrants from Sri Lanka had dropped this year, after almost touching a high of 16,619 last year. "Security centres are active in all places where migrants boats berth and antecedents of all refugees are being checked".


Tamil Nadu unveils steps to curb pro-LTTE activity

Tamil Nadu Wednesday announced stern measures against political outfits openly expressing support to the banned Tamil Tigers group of Sri Lanka, virtually banning all such activity. The government, however, did not name any political party or organisation backing the cause of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has been banned in India since 1992.

Law Minister Durai Murugan told the assembly that any individual, group or political party espousing the cause of banned outfits would be punished under The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 (37 of 1967) and jailed.

AIADMK and Congress legislators had accused the government of being soft on the LTTE and walked out of the house Tuesday despite Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi's attempt to assuage frayed tempers.

Following a high-level meeting chaired by the chief minister and attended by Finance Minister K. Anbazhagan, Advocate General Masilamani, Chief Secretary L.K. Tripathy and the police brass, the government decided that it was time to warn all organisations supporting banned bodies, Durai Murugan announced.

"Any activity in support of banned organisations in the form of public meetings, demonstrations, processions, fasts, publication and dissemination of pamphlets, posters etc. will be construed as punishable under The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967.

"All organisations should take note of the fact that if such activity is undertaken by individuals, groups, associations and/or political parties that can be construed as support to banned organisations, they will be punishable under the aforesaid law," Durai Murugan said.

Electricity Minister and DMK treasurer Arcot N. Veerasamy informed the assembly that all the 12 fishermen held by the Sri Lankan Navy had been released due to the intervention of the central and Tamil Nadu governments.

At the same time, he urged the Rameshwaram fishing community to resume work.

Many political groups in Tamil Nadu openly support the LTTE, which is fighting to form an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka's northeast.

The LTTE was outlawed in India a year after one of its suicide bombers blew up former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi near here in May 1991.


LTTE seeks UN recognition for 'Tamil sovereignty'

The LTTE today urged the United Nations to recognise "Tamil sovereignty" to end the 25-year-old ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, accusing the government in the Island state of committing excesses against the minority community in the country.

"We urge you to consider recognising Tamil sovereignty as a constructive approach to end the five decades long, large-scale, and serious rights violations against the Tamil people," the LTTE political head B. Nadesan said in a letter to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

"It should also be obvious to the international community that there is only one path open to regain the rights of the Tamil people and that is for the international community to recognize the sovereignty of the Tamil nation," Nadesan said.

The political head of the LTTE alleged in the letter that the Sri Lankan army was involved in the attack on Monday at Madhu that led to the death of 18 civilians including 12 school children.

"On 28 January, at 2.30 pm, a Sri Lankan military Deep Penetration Unit attacked a civilian bus on the Madhu-Palampiddy road in the Mannar district killing 18 civilians including twelve children," Nadesan said in the complaint lodged with the UN Secretary General.

"The attackers would have known that buses at that time carry school children returning home from school. This attack on a bus with scores of children, therefore, deliberately targeted the children. Among the eighteen civilians killed were twelve children aged from 8 to 16," he said.

Refuting the LTTE charges, a Sri Lankan military spokesman said the attack took place in the rebel controlled area and the involvement of Sri Lankan army does not arise.


India trying its ’87 pranks again – JVP

by Lakshmi de Silva

India violated the territorial sea and air space of Sri Lanka in 1987 when the army was defeating the LTTE terrorists during the Vadamarachchi Operation. It was once again trying to stop the victories of the armed forces as it did during the time President J. R. Jayawardene was in power. At that time India made him sign the Indo Lanka Accord and accept the Provincial Council System, JVP parliamentarian and trade union leader K. D. Lalkantha said yesterday (30).

He was addressing the 8th anniversary conference of the State Priniting Worker’s Union at the Government Press Auditorium Borella.

He said India does not like to see the Sri Lanka army defeating the LTTE because it was the godfather of the LTTE terrorists. "It cannot get over the fact that our army was defeating the LTTE which, India with world’s sixth the largest army, could not defeat. India does not want to see the Sri Lanka Army getting credit for defeating terrorists," he said

President J. R. Jayawardene’s arm was twisted and he was coerced to accept the Provincial Council system in 1987 but it was an illegal and undemocratic political intervention by India. The Provincial Council system had become a white elephant and it had deteriorated our education system, health and public transport services and had brought disaster to our country.

Lal Kantha said the Government should vanquish terrorism from the country but it had to give the people in the North and East their basic rights. However parceling out separate regions on the ethnic lines, like one region for Muslims and anther for Anandasangaree or Douglas Devananda was going to create a worse confusion than at present he noted.

India was trying to interfere politically and also economically trying its best to control Sri Lanka. The Government was now considering the handover of the Trincomalee oil tank farm, and open an Indian oil refinery and open up 154 new fuel filling stations throughout the country with the assistance from Indian Oil Company. Ceylon Electricity Board will like this idea as they can get fuel to run their power plants but in the long run India would have the upper hand to control our economy he said.

Sri Lanka was an independent sovereign state and no one had a right to interfere in our internal affairs. Just as we do not interfere in their internal problems like Kashmir we don’t want India to interfere in our affairs though she is called our Big Brother, he said.

Source: The Island