By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 23, 2009
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, May 22 -- As hundreds of thousands of supporters cheered outside Parliament, Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Friday dismissed calls for an international investigation into alleged war crimes by government troops in their victorious offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels.
"Some tried to stop our military campaign by threatening to haul us before war crimes tribunals," Rajapaksa said in a speech carried on national television. "The strength I have is your support," he said. "I am even ready to go to the gallows on your behalf."
Rajapaksa spoke just hours before U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived on the island to push for humanitarian groups to be given unrestricted access to the nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians displaced by the fighting.
The United Nations has voiced concern about the civilians, who are being held in barbed-wire-encircled government camps that human rights groups have likened to prisons.
Both sides in Sri Lanka's 26-year-long conflict have been accused of war crimes, especially during the past few months, when government troops cornered the Tamil Tigers on a narrow ribbon of land on the northeastern coast. Aid agencies say that the Tigers used terrified civilians, including children, as human shields, and that the government indiscriminately shelled hospitals and areas where civilians huddled in trenches.
The United Nations estimates that more than 7,000 civilians were killed in the first four months of this year. The U.N. Human Rights Council is scheduled to discuss possible war crimes next week, a move backed by the United States.
Ban's chief aide, Vijay Nambiar, flew over the war zone Thursday and later described the scene as "almost eerie."
"A large number of vehicles were burned. Large sections of the area, the trees, were burned," Nambiar said in Colombo, the capital, in the first independent account of the combat zone. "And the clusters of the tents in the camp, so closely concentrated together, all seemed to have been virtually battered."
On Saturday, Ban is to tour the largest camp in the northern district of Vavuniya, where an estimated 250,000 people are living in 27 camps and where there have been reports of overcrowding and water shortages.
The Tamil Tigers had fought to create a separate state it called Eelam, the Tamil word for homeland, in northern Sri Lanka.
More than 6,200 Sri Lankan soldiers were killed and nearly 30,000 wounded in the final two years of fighting, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the president's brother, said Friday.
Also Friday, a ceremony was held to honor the government's war dead. Prayers were offered by Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian clergy representing this multiethnic island of 21 million people. Rajapaksa has been reaching out to the minority Tamils, although many here say they want to see him translate words into action.
After a firefight Monday, the government claimed it had killed feared rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. On Friday, officials said his body had been cremated and the ashes scattered into the air. They said they wanted to avoid his burial place becoming an emotional rallying point for Tamils.
TamilNet, a rebel Web site, continues to release statements declaring that Prabhakaran is alive.