UN head visits Sri Lanka


UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon visited a displacement camp packed with tens of thousands of Tamil civilians in northern Sri Lanka as he appealed today to the triumphant government to "heal the wounds" after three decades of civil war.

The secretary-general was the first major international figure to visit since President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels on Monday, crushing their dream of a separate state for the Tamil minority.

Nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians were displaced in the final months of fighting and sent to dozens of government-run camps in the north.

The main camp, known as a Manik Farm, holds a vast expanse of white tents neatly lined up in rows on dirt paths. Roads between the tents are crammed with people, and barbed wire fences encircle the area, keeping the tens of thousands of civilians here from getting out. Soldiers are stationed across the camp.

Men and women were scooping water from a well and bathing awkwardly in the open air, trying to maintain some privacy.

Aid groups have appealed to the government to allow the displaced more freedom, but military officials say it is too dangerous to let them out because rebels could be hiding among the civilians.

Some of the camp residents held signs welcoming Ban on his 24-hour trip here.

Aid agencies have complained the government is restricting access to the camp, allowing in only essential supplies of food and water. Epidemics of chicken pox and skin diseases are sweeping through the camp and hepatitis is a growing problem because of poor sanitation, the Oxfam aid agency said.

On board a UN peacekeeping plane on his way to Sri Lanka, Mr Ban said his first priority was "unimpeded access" for UN agencies and humanitarian workers.

"I know that there are more than 300,000 displaced persons who are badly in need of humanitarian assistance - food, water and sanitation," he said.

His second major goal, he said, is to seek the reunification of families and to help reintegrate a broken society. He also said he wants to help reconcile Sri Lanka and its people.

The Tamils, 18 percent of the population, claim systematic discrimination and harassment by the Sinhalese majority.

"Now that the long decades of conflict are over, it is time for Sri Lankans to heal the wounds and unite without regards to ethnic and religious identity," Ban said at the airport on his arrival.

What the UN chief sees and hears on his weekend visit will also be of concern to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which has planned a special session on Sri Lanka on Monday at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

"I'll convey the concerns and aspirations and expectations of the international community to Sri Lankan leadership," Ban said. "Wherever there are serious violations of human rights as well as international humanitarian law, proper investigation should be instituted."

According to private UN documents, at least 7,000 civilians were killed in the final months of fighting in the war.

Ban was among many world leaders who had called on the government to halt its offensive to safeguard civilians. Those calls were ignored.

At a festive victory rally Friday, Rajapaksa defied suggestions that he and his leadership should be investigated for war crimes.

"I am not afraid of walking up to any gallows, having defeated the world's worst terrorists, and I know that I have the confidence and the strength of my people," he said.

Ban's visit could put him in the delicate position between offering assistance to a war-torn nation and appearing to be part of Rajapaksa's victory dance. He is scheduled to meet with Rajapaksa later in the day in the city of Kandy, where victory celebrations were being held.

"Why shouldn't the secretary-general of the United Nations be there trying to make things better?" said B. Lynn Pascoe, the UN's political chief.