BANGALORE, India — Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, whose country harbors thousands of Tamil refugees from the ethnic war in nearby Sri Lanka, said Monday that the Sri Lankan government has offered a new peace plan that should be acceptable to its minority Tamil population. But a Tamil leader later objected to the plan.
"With the package that Sri Lanka has given now," Gandhi said, "we believe the Tamils can live in peace and security in Sri Lanka."
However, the Indian leader stopped short of saying that he would ask the 130,000 Tamil refugees in India to return home. "Let us see what comes out of the talks," he said.
Indian officials close to the negotiations appeared more cautious than the prime minister and warned against expelling the refugees and Tamil militants from India.
"Suppose tomorrow we throw them (the Tamil militants) into the ocean," one official said. "Then what happens if the Sri Lanka government opens an offensive?"
Indian officials worked late into the night Sunday and Monday but failed in an attempt to reach a formal peace proposal that could be endorsed by Tamil rebel leaders and carried by Sri Lanka President Junius R. Jayewardene back to his country. Jayewardene was in Bangalore for a summit of South Asian leaders.
Aides to Continue Talks
After several meetings with Gandhi, he finally returned to Sri Lanka on Monday night, leaving his top ministers behind to continue negotiations. "We are still talking," Jayewardene said as he walked to his airplane.
The Indian government's stand is critical to resolving the four-year-old ethnic conflict in which Sri Lanka's 3 million Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, have been fighting Sri Lankan security forces, who are dominated by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, for a separate homeland called Eelam on the northern third of the island.
The Indian government opposes the idea of a separate state but supports the Tamils in their complaints of abuse and unprovoked attacks by the Sri Lankan security forces. It is unlikely that Tamil rebels could continue to fight without haven on the Indian mainland, only 30 miles north of Sri Lanka.
Several accounts published here during the negotiations said the peace package proposed by the government of Sri Lanka includes the creation of two majority Tamil provinces on the island that would have some degree of regional autonomy.
Talks With Rebel Leaders
In the last two days, Gandhi and his aides have met repeatedly with Jayewardene as well as Tamil rebel leaders including Velupillai Prabakaran, chairman of the powerful Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the main Tamil fighting force.
Prabakaran was ordered to Bangalore after a government crackdown on Tamil rebels living in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the state closest to Sri Lanka. Police placed hundreds of rebels under house arrest and pressured leaders to consider the Sri Lankan proposals.
Monday night, Prabakaran was quoted by the Indian news agency, United News of India, as saying Sri Lanka's proposals were "totally inadequate."
"We do not want provincial autonomy graciously offered by the Sri Lanka government for an area that is already our possession," he said.
Gandhi's statements came at a press conference after a summit of seven South Asian leaders. His discussions with Jayewardene and Tamil rebel leaders here upstaged the summit, the second meeting of rulers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives.
The Sri Lankan peace initiatives also masked increased bickering between India and archrival Pakistan. Just as the Sri Lankan government has accused India of allowing Tamil rebels to train on Indian territory, India has accused Pakistan of harboring and training Sikh separatists seeking a Sikh homeland in India's state of Punjab.
In fact, the second meeting of the South Asian Assn. for Regional Cooperation--with members representing 1 billion people--was much less convivial than the initial session last year in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The association, called SAARC, is modeled on similar organizations in Southeast Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. The members did agree, however, to work together to stem increased heroin traffic in the region.