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Sri Lanka expels UN official over war comments

world Updated: Sep 06, 2009 17:18 IST

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The Sri Lankan government said on Sunday it had ordered a senior United Nations official to leave the country over comments he made about the recently ended war against Tamil Tiger separatist rebels.

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

"His visa has been cancelled from September 7 and he was ordered to leave immediately. But the UN appealed for more time and we extended until September 21," P.B. Abeykoon, Controller of Immigration and Emigration, told AFP.

Abeykoon said the government took the decision some months ago based on "adverse remarks made to the media", but he declined to give further details.

Elder, an Australian passport holder, has 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 Tiger rebel forces in May, 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 have been trying to help hundreds of thousands of war refugees still detained in makeshift state-run camps.

The Sri Lanka government has shown little patience with critics of its military offensive 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 more details on Elder's visa status.

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

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