New Delhi, Dec 17 (PTI) With the Sri Lankan Navy apprehending a number of Indian fishermen recently, India on Thursday said it is in close touch with the Lankan government to ensure consular access and facilitate the early release of the fishermen and their boats.

At an online briefing, Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said, "We have seen reports about apprehension of 36 Indian fishermen and five of their fishing vessels on December 14 and 15 by the Sri Lankan Navy. Similar information has also been received from the government of Tamil Nadu." The government attaches high priority to this issue and we are in close touch with the government of Sri Lanka through our High Commission in Colombo and the Consulate in Jaffna to verify the information and to ensure consular access and facilitate the early release of the fishermen and their boats, he said in response to a question.

The fishermen issue and the matter of fishing boats have been on the agenda of bilateral discussion between India and Sri Lanka for many years, Srivastava pointed out.

The two governments have been seized of this essentially humanitarian matter at high levels and there exists a common understanding to handle the matter in a humanitarian way, he said.

"There are well established bilateral mechanisms between India and Sri Lanka for discussions and cooperation on the issue of fishermen. Since these could not be convened due to ongoing COVID-19 related restrictions, it has now been mutually agreed to hold a meeting of the bilateral Joint Working Group (JWG) on Fisheries through the virtual format on December 30," Srivastava said.

"The JWG, which is led on our side by Secretary, Department of Fisheries, is expected to address all the issues relating to the subject of fisheries between India and Sri Lanka including release of apprehended fishermen and fishing boats, modalities of communication between relevant authorities on the two sides, cooperation in dealing with issues related to livelihood of the fishing communities on both sides and such other matters as are mutually agreed upon," he said.

To a question on a violent group of Khalistani separatists desecrating Mahatma Gandhi's statue outside the Indian embassy in Washington during a demonstration by Sikh-American youths in support of farmers protesting against the recently enacted agriculture laws in India, Srivastava said the Indian mission has strongly taken this up with US authorities concerned and sought an early investigation as well as action as per applicable law.

The matter has also been taken up with the US embassy in Delhi and a similar message has been delivered to them, he said.

On Bhutan and Israel establishing diplomatic relations recently, Srivastava said India has noted that the two countries have established formal diplomatic relations through their respective embassies on December 12.

"We enjoy very close bilateral relations with both countries," he added.

Asked about media reports that the Indian government is planning to give voting rights to all NRIs except those living in Gulf countries, Srivastava said, "I believe that at this point in time no decision has been taken in this regard." On Morocco normalizing its ties with Israel, he said India has consistently supported peace, stability and development in the region and in that context, it welcomes the normalization of ties between the two countries.

"We have very good diplomatic relations with both countries. India continues its traditional support for the Palestinian cause. We hope to see an early resumption of direct negotiations to find an acceptable two-state solution," Srivastava said.