World

Sri Lankan protesters push to end UN probe

Sri Lankan protesters threaten hunger strikes and nationwide demonstrations if the United Nations doesn't halt its investigation into possible abuses committed during the final bloody months of the civil war.

Sri Lankan protesters threatened hunger strikes and nationwide demonstrations Wednesday if the United Nations doesn't halt its investigation into possible abuses committed during the final bloody months of the civil war.

Demonstrators block the main entrance of the United Nations office in Colombo on Wednesday. ((Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters))

The threats came a day after hundreds of demonstrators led by a government minister laid siege to the UN compound in Colombo, trapping workers inside for hours. Demonstrators also burned effigies of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Government anger toward the world body has grown since Ban formed the investigative panel last month, with ministers saying it was part of an international witch hunt against victorious Sri Lankan forces.

"The UN has deviated from its noble aims and is now bent on destabilizing selected countries," Housing Minister Wimal Weerawansa told a news conference.

Weerawansa, who heads the untra-nationalist National Freedom Front party, orchestrated Tuesday's protest, which ended in the evening after Sri Lanka's foreign secretary intervened.

A sit-in continued overnight and the next day in front of the UN offices, and Weerawansa said his followers, including a lawmaker, will go on a hunger strike if the panel is not dissolved Wednesday.

It was unclear if the UN office was open Wednesday. UN officials did not answer telephone calls seeking comment, and a UN official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the volatility of the situation, said staff had been asked to work from home.

"We take this quite seriously and anything that hinders the movement of staff is a serious concern," UN spokesman Farhan Haq said of Tuesday's protests. "We are trying to make sure that the government will honour its commitments to make sure that our work can be carried out without hindrance."

About 20 people continued to demonstrate Wednesday, but vehicles were seen moving in and out of the UN compound, unlike the previous day.

Protesters burn an effigy of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as they block the entrance to the United Nations headquarters in Colombo on Tuesday. ((Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Reuters))

Weerawansa said the UN employees will not be obstructed from going to work, even if the UN fails to meet their demand.

Government troops crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels last year, ending their 25-year campaign for an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils. More than 80,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka's civil war. According to the UN, more than 7,000 civilians died in the last five months of fighting alone.

Human rights groups have accused troops and Tamil rebels of deliberately targeting civilians and killing thousands of innocent people in the final months of the war and called for war crimes investigations.

Last month, Ban formed a panel to examine whether Sri Lankan forces committed atrocities against minority Tamils in the final months of fighting.

The government, which denied targeting civilians, opposes the panel and has already said it will not issue visas to its members. It has appointed its own reconciliation commission, but that body is not expected to look into the abuse allegations.

The Sri Lankan government said in a statement Tuesday it allowed the protests because it was obliged to respect people's right to voice their opinion. The UN compound was protected and the workers released, it said.

"The government of Sri Lanka expects that the UN complex in Colombo would continue to function as normal in the days ahead," the statement said, promising the UN staff freedom of movement.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner voiced support for the UN panel.