UN chief asks Sri Lanka to reduce military presence

COLOMBO, Sept 2, 2016 (AFP) – UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Friday urged Sri Lanka to speed up returning land to war-battered minority Tamils and reduce the army’s presence in their areas to help reconciliation after decades of ethnic bloodshed.

The UN Secretary-General said he welcomed some symbolic steps taken by the new government to ensure reconciliation, but there should be more momentum to ensure lasting peace, seven years after the 37-year civil war ended.

"I also urge you to speed up the return of (Tamil) land so that the remaining communities of displaced people can return home," he said at a public lecture attended by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera.

"In parallel, the size of the military force in the (former war zones of) North and East could be reduced, helping to build trust and reduce tension."

Ban is due to wrap up his two-day visit later Friday after a visit to the Tamil heartland of Jaffna, where he will tour the village of Veeman Kamam, where war-displaced civilians were given their land back by the military earlier this year.

However, Tamil groups still maintain 32 camps for internally displaced persons in the peninsula.

Over 100,000 Tamils cannot access their homes in the region either because they have been completely destroyed during decades of fighting or the land is still occupied by the military.

"There is still much work to be done in order to redress the wrongs of the past, and to restore the legitimacy and accountability of key institutions, particularly the judiciary and security services," Ban said.

He also pressed for accountability for the "tens of thousands of civilians" who perished in the final months of the war in 2009, a figure disputed by the former government.

On the first full day of his visit, Thursday, dozens of majority Sinhalese nationalists rallied outside the UN compound in Colombo, protesting against the UN’s actions during the prolonged ethnic war.

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Ban said on Friday that the UN too learnt lessons from Sri Lanka’s conflict.

Tamils had accused the UN of failing to protect civilians during the fighting, while the then government in Colombo accused the world body of interference.

"Sri Lanka has taught us many important lessons," he said. "Building on these, the United Nations has taken wide-ranging steps to strengthen our focus on human rights, particularly during times of political and humanitarian crisis."

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