April 28, 2009 / 9:43 AM / 10 years ago

Sweden recalls Lanka envoy after minister barred

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - Sweden has recalled its ambassador to Sri Lanka after Colombo barred Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt from participating in a mission there with French and British colleagues this week, Bildt said on Tuesday.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt arrives for the second day of the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers (GYMNICH) in Avignon, southern France in this September 6, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg, representing the Czech EU presidency, said the Sri Lanka move was “a grave mistake ... which will of course have repercussions in Europe and will influence the further development of relations between the Sri Lankan government and the European states”.

The mission’s aim is to press EU calls for a humanitarian ceasefire in the war between the government and Tamil Tiger (LTTE) rebels in an effort to protect tens of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting.

Speaking at a news conference after an EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg, Schwarzenberg described Bildt as an expert on the situation.

Bildt earlier told reporters on the sidelines of the same meeting that the Sri Lankan decision was “not good” for Stockholm’s ties with Colombo.

“The Sri Lankan authorities have suddenly said that they don’t accept me,” he told reporters, adding that no reason had been given. “It’s very strange behaviour ... exceedingly strange behaviour.”

In Colombo, a Sri Lankan foreign ministry spokesman said on Tuesday that Bildt had never been refused a visa and that Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama had spoken with Bildt on Monday and “extended an invitation to visit Sri Lanka (at) anytime convenient to him”, but in May.

A foreign ministry statement late on Monday had said Bogollagama had invited Bildt to come at “a mutually convenient time” in May, although Sri Lanka would confine this week’s visit to French and British ministers.

The Sri Lankan statements did not offer any reasons for its stance, although officials have been critical at times in the past of what Colombo sees as foreign efforts to unduly influence domestic matters.

Bildt, whose country was involved in monitoring a government-Tiger ceasefire that broke down in 2008, said he had spoken to British and French counterparts David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner and they would go ahead anyway with the mission scheduled for Wednesday.

“I hope they really listen to the message of the international community and take action accordingly,” Bildt said. “It is an acute humanitarian situation, and (we) appeal to the Sri Lankan authorities to ease up somewhat.”

“They want to completely crush the LTTE movement, one can understand that — it’s a terrorist organisation, but there are ... thousands of people that are trapped there and they have to look at their lives and the humanitarian considerations.

“What is also needed in Sri Lanka is to initiate a political process, so that all sectors of society feel that they are part of society. Until that is resolved, we won’t get stability in Sri Lanka.”

On Monday, EU foreign ministers welcomed the Sri Lankan government’s announcement of an end to heavy military operations against rebels, but urged an immediate ceasefire to allow evacuation of endangered civilians.

The ministers reaffirmed concern about mass civilian casualties and worsening humanitarian conditions in northern Sri Lanka, saying civilians there remained in “extreme peril”.

Sri Lanka says the Tigers have historically taken advantage of ceasefires to re-arm and regroup.

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