COLOMBO (Agencies) A top United Nations official urged Sri Lanka’s new government Tuesday to immediately release Tamil detainees and demilitarise former conflict areas to build confidence ahead of a fresh probe into alleged war crimes.
Jeffrey Feltman, the UN’s under secretary general for political affairs, said the government of President Maithripala Sirisena, which came to power earlier this year, should make concessions to win the trust of minority Tamils who remain largely sceptical about his intentions.
He said the UN was encouraged by the new government’s commitment to ethnic reconciliation and accountability for the alleged atrocities committed in the final stages of a separatist war that ended in May 2009.
"I have urged government leaders to take steps in the short term to address issues regarding land, detentions, disappearances, and the military posture in civilian areas," Feltman said.
Tamils complain that thousands of their loved ones have gone missing while hundreds are thought to be in custody without trial. The military still occupies large extents of land belonging to Tamils.
"There is a trust deficit that the Sri Lankans themselves must overcome," Feltman told reporters in Colombo at the end of a four-day visit for talks with local leaders.
But he added that Sirisena’s government had the support of the international community, unlike the previous administration, to ensure reconciliation and lasting peace six years after the end of a bitter war.
Feltman arrived in Sri Lanka as the UN Human Rights Council delayed releasing a report on alleged war crimes by forces under the command of former president Mahinda Rajapakse.
The UN has given more time to the new government to establish a credible domestic mechanism to probe allegations that up to 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed by Rajapakse’s troops.
While moderate Tamils have generally accepted the approach of the new government, hardliners want an international investigation.
"In Jaffna, I heard scepticism," Feltman said referring to residents in the Tamil heartland in the island’s north. "The government must find short-term steps to overcome that scepticism."
He said military deployments should not affect civilian life, a long standing demand of the international community which has called for de-militarisation of the former war zone.
Feltman said the UN was prepared to give unspecified technical support requested by Sri Lanka’s foreign minister at the UN rights council in Geneva on Monday.
Rajapakse, who ruled for a decade, insisted that no civilians were killed while crushing Tamil rebels and refused to cooperate with any foreign probe.
The UN estimates at least 100,000 people were killed in the 37-year conflict.