India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made an unscheduled visit to a Colombo church bombed during the Easter suicide attacks on his first trip to neighbouring Sri Lanka since his election triumph.
Modi’s motorcade made a detour to St Anthony’s Shrine on Sunday while en route to President Maithripala Sirisena’s seafront office in the capital, where a red carpet military parade awaited.
“I am confident Sri Lanka will rise again,” Modi posted on Twitter, where he also shared photos of himself at the church. “Cowardly acts of terror cannot defeat the spirit of Sri Lanka. India stands in solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka.”
I am confident Sri Lanka will rise again.
Cowardly acts of terror cannot defeat the spirit of Sri Lanka.
India stands in solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka pic.twitter.com/n8PA8pQnoJ
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 9, 2019
Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who received Modi at Colombo’s airport, said the two discussed ways to combat attacks such as the assault on the three hotels and as many churches which left 258 dead and nearly 500 injured on April 21.
“Since both Sri Lanka and India have been victims of terrorism, both the leaders condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and decided to step up cooperation in this critical area,” Sri Lanka’s presidential office said in a statement.
The statement added that the two leaders held most of their talks in Modi’s limousine while driving the 33km distance between the capital and the airport.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday attacks, which were carried out by a local group, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), that allegedly pledged allegiance to ISIL.
Modi also held talks with opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and minority ethnic Tamil leaders before returning home later on Sunday.
Since first becoming prime minister in 2014, Modi has stressed a “neighbourhood first” policy for the South Asian region, promising neighbours prioritised benefits of India’s economic growth.
Modi stopped in Colombo on his return from an official visit to the Maldives, where he inaugurated a radar system and military training centre. The two projects, costing $26m, were funded by India.
His brief but politically significant visit to the two neighbours came less than 10 days after Modi secured a second landslide election win and as New Delhi seeks to fend off Chinese influence in the region.
The Maldives, an archipelago of more than 1,000 tiny coral islands, and Sri Lanka straddle the world’s busiest east-west maritime route.
India, the traditional ally of both Sri Lanka and the Maldives, had watched with unease as former governments of strongman leader Abdulla Yameen in the Maldives and Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa leaned towards Beijing for political and financial support.
Yameen’s election loss last September, however, has seen new leader President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih swing back towards India.
Sri Lanka, which has been trying to balance both Asian giants, also seems to have moved back towards New Delhi since the defeat of Rajapaksa in January 2015.
China’s influence in Sri Lanka makes India anxious because New Delhi considers the Indian Ocean region to be its strategic backyard.