COLOMBO : Sri Lanka’s president Friday ordered the release of Indian fishermen detained for poaching after New Delhi surprisingly refused to back a US-led censure motion against Colombo at the UN’s top rights body.

President Mahinda Rajapakse asked officials to immediately release all fishermen from neighbouring India who had been arrested for violating the island’s territorial waters, a spokesman for the president said. “As a goodwill gesture, the president ordered the immediate release of all Indian fishermen,” the spokesman told AFP.

The move came a day after India abstained from voting for a US-led resolution that set up an international war crimes investigation against Sri Lanka over its crushing of Tamil Tiger guerrillas in May 2009. New Delhi, which supported a similar resolution last year, was widely expected to go with the US.

But it backed down at the last minute and abstained after describing the resolution as “intrusive”.

Fishermen straying into each others’ countries has been a regular thorn in the side of bilateral relations and attempts by fishing communities in India and Sri Lanka to resolve the problem had ended in failure.

The exact number of fishermen who were released was not immediately known but several dozens are thought to be in custody, according to local media reports.

However, Rajapakse’s move Friday is seen as a clear sign of expressing gratitude to New Delhi for abstaining from Thursday’s vote at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The resolution adopted Thursday sets up an international probe covering a seven year period leading up to the end of Sri Lanka’s 37-year-old Tamil separatist war in which the UN estimated at least 100,000 civilians were killed.

Of the total casualties, about 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were said to have been killed by government forces in the final months of fighting, a charge Colombo has vehemently rejected.