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Sri Lanka war crimes rift with UN widens over protests

Sri Lankan demonstrators marched to Russia's embassy today to express gratitude for support against a UN war crimes panel, the subject of a fourth day of protests that have cracked open a rift with the world body.

world Updated: Jul 09, 2010 13:55 IST

Sri Lankan demonstrators marched to Russia's embassy on Friday to express gratitude for support against a UN war crimes panel, the subject of a fourth day of protests that have cracked open a rift with the world body.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday recalled the head of UN Sri Lanka for consultations and blasted President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government for failing to stop protesters from disrupting work at the world' body's office.

Ban also ordered closed the regional office of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) , based in Colombo but which UN officials in Sri Lanka said had already been downsized in preparation for a planned move to Bangkok. The main country office remains open.

The protests led by Construction Minister Wimal Weerawansa, a popular nationalist ally of Rajapaksa, began on July 6 with demonstrators clashing with police who tried to escort trapped UN staff out until the government ordered them to stand down.

While Weerawansa entered his second day of a "fast unto death" hunger strike until Ban dissolves the panel, around 300 demonstrators marched about a kilometre to the Russian embassy from the UN offices in central Colombo.

"We should thank Russia for standing by us," demonstrator Anuruddha Perera told Reuters.

Members of the group flooded an embassy official with bouquets of flowers and handed over a letter. Others carried placards reading "Thank you Russia, we need your support again."

Russia and China both have criticised the three-member panel as unnecessary. It is tasked with advising Ban whether war crimes were committed at the end of Sri Lanka's 25-year conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

'International Conspiracies'

Sri Lanka destroyed the LTTE in May 2009, but drew primarily Western criticism for the thousands of civilian deaths in the final months of the offensive. Both the government and LTTE were accused of putting civilians in harm's way.

Rajapaksa in turn accuses the West of applying double standards to Sri Lanka's fight to destroy a group on US and EU terrorism lists. The government says Ban's panel violates its sovereignty, because it has its own commission probing the war.

"We should all get together to defeat the international conspiracies and foreign interference with our nation and should protect our war heroes, the president and defence secretary who bravely defeated the LTTE," marcher Madura Kularatne said.

Sri Lanka is concerned Ban's panel is a precursor to a full-blown investigation, pressed for by rights groups and some LTTE supporters who live in Western countries as refugees. Ban is livid that some UN operations have been impacted.

A UN spokesman on Wednesday said "Ban finds it unacceptable that the Sri Lankan authorities have failed to prevent the disruption of the normal functioning of the United Nations offices in Colombo as a result of unruly protests".

Essential staff were working in the offices on Friday, spokesman Mohan Samaranayake said in Colombo.

The government has given its tacit approval to the protests, which it says are lawful because they are peaceful. Politically, they also appeal to Rajapaksa's power base, the Sinhalese people who make up 75 percent of the country's 21 million population.

Weerawansa, who gained power by mobilising street protests after splintering from Sri Lanka's Marxist JVP party, has vowed to keep up the protest and his fast until Ban dissolves the panel. The secretary-general has refused to do so.

One of Weerawansa's doctors, Wasantha Bandara, said the minister's situation was deteriorating.

Hunger strikes to bring attention to a cause are a frequent tactic in Sri Lanka and south Asia, but rarely end with the strikers dying.

Ban says the panel is merely a resource to help Sri Lanka reconcile after thousands of Tamil civilians died in the war's final months. Sri Lanka's government says the casualty figures are hugely inflated.