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Protesters continue sit-in against UN

A small group of protesters continued to demonstrate in front of the UN compound in Sri Lanka's capital today, demanding the world body scrap its probe into alleged rights violations during the country's bloody civil war.

world Updated: Jul 07, 2010 10:45 IST

A small group of protesters continued to demonstrate in front of the UN compound in Sri Lanka's capital on Wednesday, demanding the world body scrap its probe into alleged rights violations during the country's bloody civil war. A sit-in continued overnight in front of the UN offices after hundreds of people led by a government minister on Tuesday had laid siege to the compound, trapping UN workers inside for hours. More than 125 UN workers left the building on Tuesday evening after Sri Lanka's foreign secretary intervened.

It was unclear if the United Nations office was open Wednesday. UN officials did not answer telephone calls seeking comment. About 20 people continued to demonstrate Wednesday but vehicles were seen moving in and out of the UN compound, unlike the previous day.

The ultra-nationalist National Freedom Front, which organized the protest, announced it would hold a news conference later Wednesday. Government troops crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels last year, ending their 25-year campaign for an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils.

More than 80,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka's civil war. According to the UN, more than 7,000 civilians died in the last five months of fighting alone.

The protesters were demonstrating against a panel formed by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last month to examine whether Sri Lankan forces committed atrocities against minority Tamils when the civil war drew to a close last year. The government opposes the panel and has already said it will not issue visas to its members.

Human rights groups have accused troops and Tamil rebels of deliberately targeting civilians and killing thousands of innocent people in the final months of the war.

The accusations have infuriated top government officials and sparked earlier violent protests outside the Red Cross compound and the British High Commission in Colombo.

"We take this quite seriously and anything that hinders the movement of staff is a serious concern," United Nations spokesman Farhan Haq said of Tuesday's protests. "We are trying to make sure that the government will honor its commitments to make sure that our work can be carried out without hindrance."

The Sri Lankan government said in a statement Tuesday it allowed the protests because it was obliged to respect people's right to voice their opinion. The U.N. compound was protected and the workers released, it said.

"The government of Sri Lanka expects that the UN complex in Colombo would continue to function as normal in the days ahead," the statement said, promising the U.N. staff freedom of movement. In Washington, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner voiced support for the UN panel.

The United States supported people's rights to free expression but also "a robust accountability process that will provide a durable foundation for national reconciliation and rule of law in the aftermath of Sri Lanka's decades-long conflict," he told reporters.

As police looked on Tuesday, Weerawansa and a group of ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks led men waving national flags on a march to the UN office. The protesters initially tried to break into the compound, which sits inside a high security zone protected by checkpoints and soldiers, but failed to breach the high walls. Instead, they held a sit-in, blocking both exists, spray-painting the security camera at the gate _ in an apparent bid not to be identified _ and preventing employees working inside from leaving.

Weerawansa demanded the world body disband the three-member investigative team.

"Our armed forces have beaten terrorism in an exemplary manner. We will not allow our soldiers and political leaders to be taken before an international war tribunal," Weerawansa said. "We ask Ban Ki-moon to withdraw this panel if he wants to get the workers and those inside the building out."

Sri Lanka has faced growing international criticism of its wartime conduct. Rights groups have said they have photographic and video evidence of abuses and have called for war crimes investigations.

Sri Lanka has denied targeting civilians and has appointed its own reconciliation commission, but that body is not expected to look into the war crimes allegations.