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Senior UN official expelled over Tamil Tiger 'bias'


Latest update : 2009-09-07

Sri Lankan authorities have ordered a spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to leave the country within two weeks, accusing him of "propaganda" in favour of the defeated Tamil Tigers rebels in his interviews with the media.

AFP - Sri Lanka said Sunday it had ordered a senior United Nations official to leave the country, accusing him of being biased towards the Tamil Tiger rebels in the final months of the country's civil war.

James Elder, spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), appeared regularly on television news channels and in print media discussing the bloody separatist conflict and its effects on young people.

There was widespread international concern about civilian casualties towards the end of the war, before Sri Lankan troops finally beat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a massive offensive in May to end decades of fighting.

But Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona accused Elder of being biased in the conflict in favour of the rebels.

"Mr Elder was doing propaganda in support of the LTTE," Kohona told AFP. "It was unacceptable. UN officials are meant to be impartial and the government took a very dim view of it."

"Towards the end of the conflict, he issued statements that were not researched, not exactly based on fact, but reflective of the LTTE."

Elder, an Australian passport holder, had been working for UNICEF in Sri Lanka since July last year and had a residency visa valid until 2010.

The Sri Lanka government maintained tight control of media coverage of the fighting, banning virtually all access to the conflict zone in the northeast and issuing few visas to international reporters.

Before the government's defeat of the Tigers, Elder spoke of the "unimaginable hell" suffered by children caught up in the last stages of the war.

In April he said hundreds of children had been killed in the previous months of battle and that those who survived were "living in dire circumstances, caught in the crossfire".

Elder had also called for the government to lift its restrictions on aid groups that had been trying to help hundreds of thousands of war refugees still detained in makeshift state-run camps.

Sri Lanka authorities have shown little patience with critics of the military's aggressive push to crush the Tigers, dismissing concerns expressed by the United Nations, the United States and dozens of rights groups.

UNICEF said on Sunday it was seeking further details on Elder's visa status after immigration officials instructed him to leave within two weeks.

"James Elder has been UNICEF's voice advocating on behalf of those who do not have a voice -- children and the most vulnerable," Sarah Crowe, UNICEF's regional chief of communications, told AFP from New Delhi.

"We strongly feel that he should continue to act as an impartial advocate on behalf of Sri Lanka's most vulnerable women and children."

Elder declined to comment when contacted by AFP.

The Reporters Without Borders press freedom group earlier this year said that the government had achieved an "almost total blackout of independent and objective reporting" of the war.

Sri Lankan troops finally took control of the last patch of territory held by the Tamil Tigers in May, and killed the rebels' leader and founder Vellupillai Prabhakaran.

The separatist conflict had claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1972.

Date created : 2009-09-06