Sri Lanka police abort attempt to free UN workers

Hundreds of protesters, led by a govt minister, laid siege to the UN compound in Colombo, refusing to let the workers out until the world body canceled its investigation of alleged abuses committed during SL`s civil war.

Colombo: Hundreds of protesters, led by a government minister, laid siege to the UN compound in Colombo on Tuesday, refusing to let the workers out until the world body canceled its investigation of alleged abuses committed during Sri Lanka`s civil war.

Police tried to break up the protest in the evening and escorted some of the trapped workers out of the compound, but quickly pulled back after Housing Minister Wimal Weerawansa — who led the protest — ordered them to stop, leaving some UN staff trapped inside.

The demonstrators burned effigies of United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon to protest a panel he established to examine whether government forces committed atrocities against minority Tamils when the country`s quarter-century civil war drew to a close last year.

Human rights groups have accused the 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.

As police looked on Tuesday, Weerawansa and a group of ultranationalist 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 appointed last month.

"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."

Weerawansa said the panel could lead to unfair prosecution of soldiers and political leaders who helped defeat the Tamil rebels after a long and bloody civil war.

Initially, between 125 and 200 people were trapped in the compound, according to a UN official inside the building who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Police spokesman Prishantha Jayakody said security forces had no plans to break up the protest and would confine themselves to directing traffic outside, but as evening fell, police officers moved in and dismantled a stage that was blocking an exit. Police then escorted out some of the workers and their vehicles. But Weerawansa ordered the police to stop, and the protesters resumed their blockade.

It was unclear how many staff were still inside.

Government troops crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels last year, ending their 25-year campaign for an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils. According to the UN, more than 7,000 civilians were killed in the last five months of the fighting alone.

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 a 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.

Bureau Report

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