Cannon urges Sri Lanka to allow aid groups into refugee camps

Canada remains concerned about civilian casualties in northern Sri Lanka and has urged the Sri Lankan government to allow humanitarian aid groups into refugee camps to help those who have fled the fighting, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said Tuesday.

Tamil group calls for Canada to send disaster relief team to conflict zone

Canada remains concerned about civilian casualties in northern Sri Lanka and has urged the Sri Lankan government to allow humanitarian aid groups into refugee camps to help those who have fled the fighting, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said Tuesday.

"We call on the government of Sri Lanka to give the United Nations and other international humanitarian agencies immediate access to internally displaced persons," Cannon said in a statement.

Cannon's statement came after the head of a Canadian Tamil group said Sri Lankans are celebrating a "hollow victory" over the Tamil Tiger rebel group that will not result in a lasting peace in the South Asian nation until other countries, including Canada, do more.

The Canadian Tamil Congress on Tuesday called on Ottawa to deploy the military's Disaster Assistance Response Team to assist in humanitarian aid for displaced Tamils. Canada previously sent the rapid response team to Sri Lanka in 2005 to help the country's tsunami victims.

Despite the Sri Lankan government's declaration of victory over the rebel group over the weekend, Canadian Tamil Congress president Sri Ranjan said the military continues to wage war on Tamil civilians in the country's northern region.

Ranjan also accused the Canadian government of dragging its heels before joining international calls for a ceasefire in the conflict since the Sri Lankan government launched its offensive against the Tamil Tigers in January.

"Many in the international community have been persistent in working towards peace in Sri Lanka," Ranjan told reporters on Tuesday at a news conference in Toronto.

"However, Canada has yet to make measurable action, compromising Canada's traditional role as a peacekeeper and peacemaker. For the 300,000 Tamil-Canadians, this inaction is particularly disappointing."

On top of urging Sri Lanka to allow international aid groups, Ranjan called on Canada to pressure the Sri Lankan government into allowing reporters and independent monitors to evaluate the humanitarian situation in the war zone and help the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tamil refugees who have fled the fighting in recent months.

The United Nations says 7,000 civilians were killed and 16,700 wounded in the fighting from Jan. 20 until May 7, during the government's final offensive aimed at ending the country's bloody 25-year civil war. Health officials in the area said more than 1,000 others have been killed since then.

Casualty figures have been nearly impossible to verify because the Sri Lankan government has barred all independent reporters from the conflict zone.

'Long-term' political solution needed: Cannon

Cannon said Canada will continue to work with the international community through the United Nations to provide assistance and support to the people of Sri Lanka.

The minister added Canada is prepared to assist Sri Lankan efforts to "find political reconciliation and a lasting peace" between the country's Sinhalese majority and ethnic Tamil population.

"Canada urges the government of Sri Lanka to begin to find a long-term political solution that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all the people of Sri Lanka," he said.

The Tamil congress has also called on the Canadian government to allow thousands of Sri Lankans from refugee camps to join their relatives in Canada.

In response to the situation in Sri Lanka, Canadian immigration officials in Colombo are expediting applications coming from the danger zone, Alykhan Velshi, spokesman for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, wrote in an email to on Tuesday.

"Reuniting families is a key priority for us, and permanent resident applications of spouses and dependent children are being processed on a priority basis," Velshi wrote.

During the first quarter of 2009, Canada issued 48 per cent more permanent resident visas out of Sri Lanka than during the same quarter in 2008, he noted.

In the meantime, he said, the Colombo immigration office is using "all the tools available" — including issuing temporary and permanent resident visas on humanitarian and compassionate grounds — to help those affected by the conflict.

Toronto protesters don't believe Tamil rebel leader dead

As Ranjan spoke on Tuesday, a handful of Tamils continued their protest outside the Ontario legislature. The protesters did not divulge whether there are plans for larger-scale demonstrations.

Previous demonstrations by thousands of members of Toronto's Tamil community have brought traffic in the city to a halt on several occasions, including shutting down the Gardiner Expressway for several hours on May 10.

The protests have featured the flying of the flags of the Tamil Tigers, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Tamil Tigers were banned in Canada as a terrorist group in 2006 for their use of child soldiers and suicide bombers during the country's civil war, which has killed an estimated 70,000 people.

Sri Lankans poured into the streets of the capital, Colombo, in spontaneous celebration on Monday as the government announced the deaths of the last of the holdout rebels, including the Tigers' leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Video footage played on Sri Lankan television on Tuesday showed a bloated corpse purported to be Prabhakaran, a day after the military said he was killed in the rebel group's last stand against government forces in the north. A rebel official abroad denied Prabhakaran was killed and said he was in a safe place.

Several protesters outside the Ontario legislature on Tuesday said they won't believe the Sri Lankan government's statement that Prabhakaran had died without independent confirmation.

With files from The Canadian Press