AFP - Sri Lanka barred Sweden's foreign minister Tuesday from entering the island on a humanitarian mission, as diplomatic tensions mounted over the conduct of the war on the Tamil Tigers.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt had been due to travel to the war-torn country this week to press demands for aid workers to be given full access to civilians trapped by heavy fighting between government troops and the rebels.
But a Sri Lankan foreign ministry official indicated that Colombo felt it had already done enough by allowing Britain and France's top diplomats -- David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner -- to visit Wednesday.
"The Swedish minister also wanted to jump on that bandwagon and we said no," the official said.
"Some think they can land up at our airport and expect a red carpet treatment. We are not a colony and neither a bankrupt Third World country. Our main donors are in Asia, not in Europe," the official added.
Bildt said he had been denied a visa and described the snub as "exceedingly strange behaviour." He was recalling the top Swedish diplomat to Colombo.
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, said Sri Lanka's government had made a "grave mistake" that will "have repercussions in Europe and will influence the further relations between the Sri Lankan government and the European states."
Sri Lanka's Foreign Ministry said Bildt had not made a formal application for a visa and his plan to visit the island had not been discussed when the joint visits of French and British ministers were considered.
"It needs to be understood that in this instance there had been no formal prior consultations with the government of Sri Lanka with regard to the visit of the Swedish Foreign Minister," the foreign ministry statement said.
It added that statements from the EU "seem to be emanating from a unilateral decision made on the part of Sweden and the EU with regard to the said visit."
One of several possible explanations of the move to deny Bildt entry may be linked to criticism of Sri Lanka voiced by Nordic foreign ministers last year, his spokeswoman Irena Busic told AFP.
Bildt was one of five foreign ministers who in January 2008 expressed concern after Colombo withdrew from a 2002 ceasefire with the rebels.
The row came a day after the United Nations' humanitarian chief John Holmes also saw his requests for greater humanitarian access turned down, despite mounting international concern over civilian casualties.
A UN document circulated among diplomats in Colombo last week said as many as 6,500 civilians may have been killed and another 14,000 wounded in the government's offensive against the separatist rebels so far this year.
The UN also estimates that some 50,000 non-combatants are still trapped in the conflict area, and the world body's rights chief has said both sides in the long-running ethnic war may be guilty of war crimes.
The government maintains that the number of trapped civilians is fewer than 20,000. President Mahinda Rajapakse pledged Monday that air strikes and attacks using heavy-calibre weapons would stop.
But a pro-Tamil Tiger website said government forces continued to pound civilians trapped in the small patch of coastal jungle still held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The military immediately denied the allegation, but did say its troops were advancing.
"We did not shell the area. We have not used heavy weapons against civilian areas even before," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. "But ground operations to capture territory and rescue civilians will continue."
Officials say the LTTE now controls just six square kilometres (2.5 square miles) of land and is on the brink of defeat after a decades-long campaign for an independent Tamil homeland.
The island's government has for months blocked most aid agencies from working in the war-torn north, and has herded escaping Tamil civilians into overcrowded camps which are guarded by the military.
The United States voiced concern about the reports of continued shelling but stayed out of the row over Bildt.
"We're still very concerned about ... unconfirmed reports that heavy shelling has continued in the conflict zone," State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters in Washington.
"We want to make sure that the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE do their utmost to protect civilians in the conflict area," he said. "They need to live up to their word."