/ 23 May 2009

UN chief visits Sri Lanka conflict zone

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon on Saturday saw at first hand the plight of civilians displaced by Sri Lanka’s conflict with the Tamil Tigers amid concerns for 300 000 Tamils left homeless by the fighting.

Just days after Colombo declared victory over the rebels, the UN secretary general toured the sprawling Menik Farm camp, home to thousands of civilians who fled the war zone.

Tamil activists have likened the barbed wire ”welfare villages” housing the civilians to concentration camps, while UN and relief aid agencies have complained about restrictions placed by the authorities on vehicle access to the shelters.

Ban flew north after early morning talks in Colombo with Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama.

The Menik Farm camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) is in the town of Vavuniya, one of dozens ravaged and ruined by decades of ethnic war.

It is home to between 160 000 and 180 000 traumatised civilians, according to UN humanitarian chief John Holmes, who recently visited it and described it as ”one of the biggest IDP camps in the world”.

More than 20 reporters travelling with Ban were also set to get a rare look at the camp and join him on a flight over the conflict zone.

The area has been off-limits to journalists and almost all foreign aid agencies as the war reached its bloody conclusion, making conflicting accounts of death tolls and the impact on civilians impossible to independently verify.

Ban was later due to meet President Mahinda Rajapakse to spell out the need to allow unfettered access to humanitarian aid.

He is also expected to urge Rajapakse to ensure full and fair integration of the Tamil minority into Sri Lankan society as part of a process of ”national reconciliation.”

The Tamils make up 12,6% of Sri Lanka’s population of 20-million.

”It is time for Sri Lankans to heal the wounds and unite without regard to religious and ethnic identity,” Ban told reporters on his arrival late on Friday for his 24-hour mission.

The secretary general said ensuring substantial humanitarian assistance ”to the more than 300 000 displaced badly in need of food, water and sanitation” was one of the priorities on his visit.

Just hours before Ban jetted in to Sri Lanka, a typically bullish Rajapakse, due to meet the UN chief in the central city of Kandy, dismissed international pressure.

”There are some who tried to stop our military campaign by threatening to haul us before war crimes tribunals,” Rajapakse said in a speech to hundreds of thousands of supporters outside the national Parliament.

”I am not afraid. The strength I have is your support. I am even ready to go to the gallows on your behalf.”

The UN estimates that more than 7 000 civilians were killed in the first four months of this year alone, when the blistering government offensive cornered the Tigers on the island’s northeast coast.

Both sides in the conflict have been accused of rights violations, with numerous aid agencies and rights groups alleging indiscriminate army shelling and condemning the Tigers, who had fought for a separate state for decades, for using civilians as a human shield.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has called for a war crimes probe, a call backed by former colonial power Britain.

The Sri Lankan military, which has staunchly denied killing any civilians, declared final victory in the conflict on Monday after overrunning the rebels’ last holdout and killing Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Giving a conflicting account, the pro-rebel website Tamilnet said on Friday that Prabhakaran was still alive, but army chief Sarath Fonseka said in an interview to be published on Sunday that security forces had cremated his body.

The conflict has cost up to 100 000 lives, according to UN estimates.

The UN’s main rights body is to hold a special session on Sri Lanka next week. — AFP