Wed, Apr 29, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Colombo rejects Swedish minister for mediation trip

SNUBBED: The aim of the trip is to increase pressure for an immediate ceasefire. While the French and British foreign ministers will be allowed into the country, Carl Bildt will not

AP , STOCKHOLM AND COLOMBO

Tamil supporters prepare to march on Government House as they protest the actions of the Sri Lankan government in Melbourne, Australia, yesterday.

PHOTO: AFP

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said he had been refused entry to Sri Lanka as part of a European mediating mission.

Bildt was scheduled to visit the country today with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French counterpart Bernard Kouchner.

Bildt said Sri Lankan authorities did not give him permission to enter the country, but that Miliband and Kouchner would be admitted. He said no reason was given for the decision.

The aim of the trip was to increase pressure on an immediate ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers.

EU foreign ministers on Monday called for a ceasefire so the UN could coordinate evacuation of civilians caught in the war zone.

Meanwhile, a pro-Tamil Tiger Web site yesterday accused Sri Lankan government forces of continuing to pound the civilians despite a pledge to stop using heavy weapons.

The military immediately denied the allegation, but confirmed it was trying to capture more territory and free the civilians it said were being held as human shields by the outnumbered and encircled rebels.

“There was heavy mortar fire from many directions,” Tamilnet reported, adding that 139 people were wounded in attacks on Monday evening — hours after Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s office pledged that air and artillery strikes would stop.

Sri Lankan military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said fighting was continuing — despite international calls for a ceasefire to spare civilian lives — but denied the army was firing indiscriminately.

“We did not shell the area. We have not used heavy weapons against civilian areas even before,” he said. “But ground operations to capture territory and rescue civilians will continue.”

On Monday, the UN’s top humanitarian official John Holmes welcomed Colombo’s promise to scale down its assault but said he was disturbed by reports of continued shelling.

“I hope it [the government declaration] will be genuinely respected this time,” Holmes said. “It has not happened in the past.”

A UN document circulated among diplomats in Colombo last week said as many as 6,500 civilians may have been killed and another 14,000 wounded in the government’s offensive this year.

Some 110,000 civilians escaped from the rebel-held sliver of territory on the island’s northeastern coast last week following a major military push.

But the UN estimates that some 50,000 non-combatants are still trapped in the conflict area, while the government maintains that the number is fewer than 20,000.

The Sri Lankan government says its forces have cornered the Tamil Tigers in a small strip of coastal territory in the northeast, but has come under pressure over its conduct of the war.

Holmes left Colombo late on Monday after failing to secure an agreement from the Sri Lankan government on opening up the conflict area for humanitarian aid and relief workers.

He also said the UN was pressing the government to ensure that the civilians are held in camps in line with international standards and allowed freedom of movement that is denied to them.

The island’s government has been blocking most aid agencies from working in the war-torn north for months and has herded escaping Tamil civilians into closely guarded internment camps so it can weed out suspected rebels.

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