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Asia-pacific

UN chief to urge humanitarian access to displaced refugees

Video by Yuka ROYER

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-05-23

UN chief Ban Ki-moon (pictured) arrived in Sri Lanka Friday to press the country's government for unrestricted access to the estimated 250,000 refugees displaced by the army's conflict with the Tamil Tigers, which came to a bitter end this week.

AFP - UN chief Ban Ki-moon arrived Friday in Sri Lanka to press for humanitarian access to civilians displaced by the separatist conflict, as the island's president dismissed international concerns.
  
Ban is the first world leader to visit since Colombo's assertion earlier this week that the Tamil Tigers' bloody decades-long crusade for an independent homeland had been crushed once and for all.
  
"It's time for Sri Lankans to heal the wounds and unite without regards for religious and ethnic identity," Ban said after touching down to a red-carpet welcome late in the evening.
  
The secretary general said he had three priorities on his 24-hour mission, chief among them ensuring humanitarian assistance "to the more than 300,000 displaced badly in need of food, water and sanitation".



Tamil activists have likened the barbed wire "welfare villages" where civilians who fled the fighting are housed to concentration camps.
   
Ban also identified the need for the Tamil minority, long marginalised here, to be resettled and integrated into Sinhalese-dominated society.
   
The third goal of his visit was "national reconciliation" he said, adding: "I hope President Rajapakse will reach out in a inclusive dialogue with minority groups, including Tamils and Muslims."
   
But in a defiant speech delivered just hours before Ban flew in, President Mahinda Rajapakse brushed off widespread pressure from governments around the world who fear the Tigers' defeat came at the expense of civilians.
   
"There are some who tried to stop our military campaign by threatening to haul us before war crimes tribunals," said Rajapakse in a speech to hundreds of thousands of supporters outside the national parliament.
   
"I am not afraid. The strength I have is your support. I am even ready to go to the gallows on your behalf."
   
The United Nations estimated that more than 7,000 civilians were killed in the first four months of this year, when a blistering government offensive cornered the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the northeast coast.
   
Both sides in the conflict have been accused of rights violations, with numerous aid agencies and rights groups alleging indiscriminate army shelling and condemning the Tigers, who had fought for a separate state for decades, for using civilians as human shields.
   
Aid workers were also denied access to those trapped by the fighting, despite accounts of a jungle area littered with dead, dying and starving civilians.
   
The Sri Lankan military declared final victory in the decades-old conflict on Monday after overrunning the rebels' last holdout and killing LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. It has staunchly denied killing any civilians.
   
"We had to overcome many obstacles in our battle against the Tigers. The international community was against us, but today they have begun supporting us," the president said in his address, which was carried on national television.
   
But the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has called for a war crimes probe, a call backed by former colonial power Britain.
   
Ban's chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, told reporters that the secretary general would tour the sprawling Manik Farm area in the northern district of Vavuniya, where most of the people displaced by the recent fighting are housed.
   
Ban has also said Tuesday that any serious allegations of war crimes "should be properly investigated."
   
The conflict has cost up to 100,000 lives, according to UN estimates.
   
More than 6,200 Sri Lankan soldiers were also killed and around 30,000 wounded in nearly two years of fighting with the rebels, Sri Lanka's Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse said in an interview with state TV on Friday.
   
In a separate announcement, the pro-rebel website Tamilnet repeated LTTE claims that Prabhakaran was still alive, and said "the LTTE leadership will make contact with its people at a suitable time in future."
   
It dismissed the display of Prabhakaran's corpse on state TV as part of "engineered rumours."

Date created : 2009-05-22

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