Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fears for safety of UN official

Matt Wade - An Australian, United Nations official has received anonymous threats to his safety days after being branded a terrorist sympathiser by the Sri Lankan Government and ordered to leave the country.

James Elder, the United Nations Children's Fund spokesman in Sri Lanka and the father of three young children living in Colombo, must leave Sri Lanka in less than a fortnight after having his visa revoked.

This week Sri Lanka's former foreign secretary, Palitha Kohona - also an Australian citizen - accused Mr Elder of ''doing propaganda'' in support of the Tamil Tigers insurgency.

Dr Kohona's comments have raised fears about the safety of Mr Elder and his family in a country where ethnic tensions remain high just months after the end of a long-running civil war.

Dr Kohona, who worked for Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for more than a decade before returning to Sri Lanka, has just become Sri Lanka's representative to the United Nations, the organisation that employs Mr Elder.

The Age believes Mr Elder has received intimidating phone messages after it was announced that his visa would be cancelled on September 21. It is not suggested that Dr Kohona is behind the threats to Mr Elder's safety.

Even if the Sri Lankan Government reverses its decision to expel Mr Elder, Dr Kohona's comments appear to make his position in Sri Lanka untenable.

The Tamil Tigers are a proscribed terrorist organisation in many countries, including Australia.

After more than 25 years of fighting, separatist Tamil Tiger rebels were routed by the Sri Lankan army in May and the group's leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, killed.

Mr Elder, who has been UNICEF's spokesman in Sri Lanka for more than a year, made frequent statements to the media about the plight of children caught up in the conflict and who were subsequently sent to guarded camps for Tamil refugees. Sri Lanka has stridently resisted international pressure to allow an investigation into allegations of a high civilian death toll and war crimes during the closing stages of the war.

It is estimated that between 7000 and 20,000 civilians were killed in the final weeks of the war and many of the victims were children.

The Australian Government has offered Mr Elder consular assistance, but so far the Government's reaction to the expulsion has been muted.

Mr Elder has received strong support from the highest level of the UN.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he ''strongly regrets'' the decision and would take up Mr Elder's case with Sri Lanka's President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

''The United Nations is working impartially to assist the people of Sri Lanka, and the Government should be supporting and co-operating with its efforts,'' he said.

There was great tension between Sri Lanka and the UN in the bloody climax to the civil war in the first five months of this year.

Jehan Perera, head of Colombo's National Peace Council, said Mr Elder's expulsion showed the Sri Lankan Government had not yet moved on from its wartime mindset.

© The Age

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