British PM demands Sri Lanka rights probe, angers government

COLOMBO Sat Nov 16, 2013 10:35pm IST

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron talks with Tamil people at the Sabapathi Pillay Welfare Centre in Jaffna, about 400 km (250 miles) north of Colombo November 15, 2013.REUTERS/Stringer

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron talks with Tamil people at the Sabapathi Pillay Welfare Centre in Jaffna, about 400 km (250 miles) north of Colombo November 15, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron on Saturday said he would push for an independent inquiry into allegations of war crimes at the end of Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war, drawing an angry response from the island nation's president.

"People who are in glass houses must not throw stones," President Mahinda Rajapaksa said, after Cameron said Sri Lanka should conduct its own investigation by March 2014 or face an international inquiry.

Cameron has been the most vocal critic of Sri Lanka's rights record during a summit of Commonwealth nations being held in the capital Colombo. The normally sedate event has been shaken by the row over atrocities during the final months of the civil war and subsequent abuses.

The Sri Lankan army crushed Tamil Tiger separatists in the final battle of the civil war in 2009, in a strategy partly drawn up by Rajapaksa's brother, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Some 300,000 civilians were trapped on a narrow beach during the onslaught and a U.N. panel estimates 40,000 non-combatants died. Both sides committed atrocities but army shelling killed most victims, it concluded.

"Let me be very clear. If an investigation is not completed by March, then I will use our position on the U.N. Human Rights Council to work with the U.N. Human Rights Commission and call for a full, credible and independent international inquiry," Cameron told reporters.

Rajapaksa's reaction appeared to be a reference to Northern Ireland, which suffered decades of sectarian violence between Protestants wanting the province to remain British-ruled and Catholics wanting unification with the Irish republic, until a 1998 peace deal.

The Sri Lankan president made a veiled reference to the Bloody Sunday shootings, when British soldiers killed 14 unarmed protesters in 1972. It is a topic he has spoken of before.

"We have done what we can but there are other countries after 40 years they still couldn't publish a report," he said. Britain published the results of an inquiry into the killings in 2010.

RECONCILIATION

Cameron visited the former war zone of Jaffna and urged Rajapaksa to do more to seek reconciliation and devolve power to the Tamils. In a meeting on Friday, Rajapaksa told Cameron it was only four years since the war ended and the country needed time to overcome its problems.

The U.N. Human Rights Commission next meets in March to assess Sri Lanka's progress on addressing human rights abuses, including the allegations of war crimes. It was not immediately clear what form an international inquiry would take. Sri Lanka has in the past refused to allow the United Nations unfettered access to former war zones.

Since the end of the civil war, harassment of government critics, including attacks on journalists and rights workers, have continued. A heavy army presence on the former Tamil Tiger strongholds in the north angers some local ethnic Tamils who feel they are treated as enemies of the state.

The Sri Lankan government, which includes several of Rajapaksa's family members, disputes the number of civilian deaths. It says criticism of its rights record amounts to foreign interference in its affairs.

"We are not going to allow it, definitely we will object," the president's brother, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, said in response to a question about the possibility of an international inquiry.

Government supporters have protested in several towns in the past days, accusing Britain of neo-colonialism. The president said he had saved lives by ending the war and had appointed a commission to investigate what happened to missing people. Critics say Sri Lanka's investigations are not impartial.

The Commonwealth groups 53 nations, mostly former British colonies, and is headed by Queen Elizabeth. It has little power or economic clout but has played a role in resolving disputes.

Sri Lanka had predicted that 37 of the Commonwealth's member states would send leaders to the summit, but 27 showed up. The leaders of Canada and Mauritius boycotted the event because of concerns about human rights. India's prime minister stayed away because of pressure from India's ethnic Tamils.

Since the civil war ended, the government has made rapid progress rebuilding the war-torn north, especially road projects. Elections in the northern province in September resulted in a landslide victory for a Tamil opposition party formerly linked to the Tigers. (Writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Janet Lawrence)

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