Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Sri Lanka: Police ordered to leave protesters

BBC News

There have been chaotic scenes outside the UN's Sri Lanka offices, where protesters are demanding the UN end investigations into alleged war crimes.

Most UN staff managed to leave after police tried to break the blockade in Colombo, before being ordered to leave themselves by the government.

Several senior staff, however, remain inside and the protests, led by a government minister are continuing.

Sri Lanka says an inquiry is not needed and denies troops committed war crimes.

The government has refused to grant visas to the UN advisory panel's three members, saying the investigation violates its sovereignty.

Speaking from New York, a UN spokesman told the BBC the organisation was doing all it could to ensure the safety of its Colombo staff.

There have been consistent allegations that both the army - and Tamil Tigers rebels who troops routed last year - committed crimes at the end of the war.

About 7,000 civilians died in the last five months of the war, according to the UN.

It says the panel, announced last month, will report back within four months and will advise on how to deal with alleged perpetrators of abuses.

'Irresponsible actions'

Hundreds of flag-waving protesters, led by Housing Minister Wimal Weerawansa, descended on the UN offices on Tuesday. They burned an effigy of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon outside the buildings, the BBC's Charles Haviland reported from the scene.

They also threatened to go on hunger strike to press their demands.

Police arrived in the afternoon and there were clashes with protesters when they attempted to break the siege. Police managed to escort several vehicles of UN staff out of the compound.

An angry Mr Weerawansa then called up the president's brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and put him on the speaker phone, our correspondent reports.

Mr Rajapaksa ordered the police to leave and soon hundreds of policemen obeyed. Scores of protesters still remain outside the UN office, our correspondent says.

The UN called the protest "worrying" and said it would be reminding the Sri Lankan government of assurances it had given to try to protect UN staff.

"As far as we know none of them have been harmed in today's events," spokesman Farhan Haq told BBC Sinhala.

"We'll try to make sure that they have the protection that they need. It does seem that there have been some irresponsible actions on the ground."

He said there were no plans to disband the advisory panel.

The protesters, many of them Buddhist monks, say their action will continue until the UN disbands the panel.

Mr Weerawansa told the BBC that "patriotic Sri Lankans" did not support the panel.

"We are requesting Mr Ban Ki-moon to withdraw his three-member panel.

"Until he withdraws it, we will stage continuous demonstrations and this hunger strike in front of the UN office in Colombo.

Mr Weerawansa called on Sri Lankans around the world to stage strikes in front of UN offices in their countries.

EU move

Meanwhile, the detained ex-army chief Sarath Fonseka, who led the security forces in fighting the Tamil Tigers, has said he is not afraid to face the UN panel.

"As the then army commander I can candidly say the war was waged in line with international covenants and conventions. I fully support the military in this case," Sri Lanka's Daily Mirror newspaper quoted him as saying.

There has been much international concern over the conduct of both sides in the latter stages of the war, which ended in May 2009.

Sri Lanka says it will hold its own internal inquiry, but the exact terms of reference are not clear.

International human rights groups are sceptical about the ability of the government to investigate claims impartially. They are demanding an independent investigation.

On Monday, the European Union announced it was withdrawing Sri Lanka's preferential trade access to EU markets after it failed to improve its human rights record.

© BBC News

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