JAFFNA Sri Lanka (Reuters) - More than two decades after its destruction in Sri Lanka's civil war, the rail link between the capital Colombo and the northern city of Jaffna re-opened on Monday amid hopes that it will give a boost to reconciliation efforts.
Sri Lankans excitedly crowded into Jaffna station to welcome the blue train 'Yaal Devi' (Jaffna Queen), heavily garlanded with flowers, the first to arrive in the city since July 1990. Many younger residents had never seen a train before.
"This is not just another journey, this is a bridge between the north and south," said President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who boarded the Chinese-built train for the final 38 km (24 miles) of its journey to Jaffna amid tight security.
Rajapaksa's government brought Colombo's 26-year-long war with Tamil Tiger rebels to an end in 2009, but has drawn criticism from Western nations and ethnic minority Tamils for not doing more since then to mend ties with the Jaffna region.
He argues that economic development, with over $5 billion worth of infrastructure, including the rail link, offers the best basis for reconciliation between the Tamils and Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese.
India provided a credit of $800 million to rebuild the rail link. The final stretch, to the north of Jaffna, has not yet been completed.
On its way to Jaffna, Yaal Devi, travelling at its maximum speed of 120 km (75 miles) per hour, crossed a bridge whose destruction by the Tamil Tigers in 1990 severed the rail link with the south.
From then until 2009, with roads in rebel hands, people and goods had to travel by air or sea to reach the Jaffna peninsula.
At stations along its 146-km (90 mile) route on Monday, the train was greeted by school children waving national flags.
"I brought my (eight-year-old) son to show him a train for the first time in his life," Selvaraja Rahunanthan, 42, told Reuters in Jaffna.
A 33-year old woman who declined to give her name said she could remember as a child waving at the train in Kankesanthurai, the terminus of the line 18 km (11 miles) north of Jaffna.
"But I can't go back to my home because the government has taken over our land under its higher security zone (measures)."
Tamils have raised concerns over the heavy military presence in the north, continued rights abuses and the slowness of Rajapaksa's moves towards a sustainable political settlement.
They say Rajapaksa's huge infrastructure programmes have yet to deliver economic benefits for them and their region.
The United Nations has estimated that about 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final weeks of the civil war, mostly by the army.
Sri Lanka has rejected the allegation but Rajapaksa's government is facing an international probe over the alleged human rights violations.
Rajapaksa is expected to run for a third six-year term in an early presidential poll next year.
Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Gareth Jones