The foreign ministers of Britain and France said yesterday they had failed to persuade Sri Lanka to end its offensive against Tamil rebels and allow aid in for civilians trapped by the fighting.
“We tried very hard — we insisted and we insisted — but it is up to our friends to allow it or not,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told a news conference after talks with the Sri Lankan government.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband also said the talks had ended without a breakthrough, telling Sri Lanka that international calls for a ceasefire were “only to save civilians” and not to help the Tamil Tigers.
“Now is the time for the fighting to stop,” Miliband said. “Sri Lanka’s military advances have been spectacular, but winning the peace is as vital as winning the war.”
Sri Lanka’s leaders say they are on the cusp of victory after 37 years of violence, with the ethnic rebels cornered and outnumbered in a small strip of coastal jungle in the northeast of the island.
Government officials have argued that any truce would only allow the rebels to regroup.
At the center of global concern are tens of thousands of Tamil civilians unable to escape the fighting.
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 so far this year.
Sri Lanka has for months blocked most aid agencies from working in the conflict zone, and has herded about 100,000 fleeing civilians into overcrowded camps that are guarded by the military.
Aid workers who have visited the camps have testified to food shortages, woeful sanitation, a desperate medical situation and overcrowding.
The UN estimates that a further 50,000 non-combatants are still trapped inside the rebels’ remaining territory.
On the eve of the visit by the ministers, Sri Lankan authorities announced they had denied Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt a visa to join the peace mission — prompting a diplomatic row with the EU.
A Sri Lankan foreign ministry official indicated that Colombo felt it had already done enough by letting in Miliband and Kouchner as international pressure for a ceasefire grows.
“The Swedish minister also wanted to jump on that bandwagon and we said no,” the official said. “Some think they can land up at our airport and expect a red-carpet treatment.”
Bildt described the snub as “exceedingly strange behavior” and said he had recalled the Swedish ambassador to Colombo.
The row is a symptom of Sri Lanka’s hardening stance toward0 the West, with officials regularly accusing the UN and aid groups of supporting or colluding with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
After months of heavy fighting, the Tigers are said by the military to be down to their last few hundred fighters.
Although the LTTE has been widely condemned for holding civilians as human shields, the UN’s rights chief has said both sides in the long-running ethnic war may be guilty of war crimes.
In the latest fighting, Sri Lanka’s navy said that it sank six rebel boats and killed at least 25 guerrillas in a pre-dawn sea battle yesterday.