JAFFNA, Sri Lanka (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s president Monday launched train services to the battle-scarred city of Jaffna nearly 25 years after a bloody ethnic conflict destroyed the region’s entire railway network.
President Mahinda Rajapakse boarded a special train from the town of Palai on the southern end of the Jaffna peninsula and travelled to the cultural capital of Sri Lanka’s ethnic minority Tamils.
His train stopped at three stations rebuilt as part of the reconstruction of 250-kilometres of track across the former war zone, both in the Jaffna peninsula and the northern mainland.
“The resumption of the train service shows Jaffna is fast becoming a centre of development” after decades of war, Transport Minister Kumara Welgama said.
The train service from Jaffna, 400 kilometres north of the capital Colombo, came to a halt in June 1990 after the collapse of a truce between separatist Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces.
The Tigers ruled Jaffna as their de-facto separate state for nearly five years till they were driven out of the peninsula after a major offensive in 1995.
However, train services could not resume because of fighting in the rest of the northern mainland. Tiger rebels had also ripped up rails and sleepers to build bunkers.
After the crushing defeat of the guerrillas in May 2009, the authorities began an ambitious reconstruction effort that included restoration of rail links – a key bridge between the Sinhalese majority in the south and the minority Tamil-dominated north.
The railways were restored under an $800-million Indian credit line and Ircon International Ltd, India’s leading public-sector construction company, began the work in 2011.
The line to Jaffna was initially laid in the early part of the last century with the first train commissioned in 1905 by the then British colonial rulers.
IRCON project director Shyam Lal Gupta said the northern line is Sri Lanka’s fastest track, capable of speeds of up to 120 kilometres, triple the average speed elsewhere.
Workers have also relaid tracks to the northwest coast of Mannar on the northern mainland which could allow resumption of a train-and-ferry link to neighbouring south India.
The rail connection with India was disrupted three decades ago when fighting intensified in a conflict that eventually claimed 100,000 lives, according to UN estimates.