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Sri Lanka captured Canadian, MP told – National Post

[MISC, Tuesday, 7 July 2009 12:53 No Comment]

A Canadian "combatant" captured during the final days of Sri Lanka’s civil war is being held at a detention camp on the island, Canada’s Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Secretary said yesterday.

Deepak Obhrai, who arrived in Sri Lanka on Sunday for Canada’s first official visit since the civil war ended in May, said the Canadian was detained at a camp for former Tamil Tigers rebels.

"He is a combatant, according to them," Mr. Obhrai told the National Post in a telephone interview from Colombo. "They told us who he was, we are aware of his identity. We were told he was held at a camp which is for combatants, which is separate, which they classify as a rehabilitation camp. He is held in that camp."

The Calgary MP’s visit comes as Sri Lanka is emerging from a long civil war between government forces and separatist Tamil Tigers rebels. During the last phase of the conflict, hundreds of Tamil fighters were killed while others surrendered or were captured. This is the first indication that a Canadian was among them.

But David Poopalapillai, spokesman for the Canadian Tamil Congress, said the claim should be viewed with skepticism because it could be the product of torture.

"Anything that comes from a Sri Lankan government statement, we want people to be cautious."

The war forced almost 300,000 Tamil civilians to flee their homes. The government is holding them at temporary camps. In a statement yesterday, the Canadian Tamil Congress called their detention a "violation of international humanitarian law" and urged Mr. Obhrai to push for their release.

Government officials had previously said that six foreign nationals were among those held at the camps: three Australians, and one each from Britain, Norway and the Netherlands. But a Toronto lawyer said yesterday four Canadians are also being held.

Gary Anandasangaree said he was assisting the family of one such Canadian but added he was aware of three similar cases.

He said he had not heard of any Canadian combatants having been captured but said that regardless they had the right to consular assistance from the Canadian government.

Mr. Obhrai said he had counted only two Canadians so far. In addition to the alleged combatant, he said he met a second Canadian yesterday while visiting a civilian displacement camp. "We talked to him and he is now in touch with our consular officials, and we will be working towards his release back home," Mr. Obhrai said.

Mr. Obhrai, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, spent yesterday visiting three displaced persons camps. In May, Canada announced $3-million in humanitarian assistance to those displaced by the war, bringing Canada’s total aid contribution to $7.5-million this year.

"Everybody is trying to address this issue, including Canada through its aid to the World Food Programme, to Oxfam and to everyone who provides shelter," Mr. Obhrai said. "Nevertheless, that is still a humanitarian crisis…. These are refugee camps, people are cramped together, medical facilities are there, but with the massive number of people all these become inadequate."

He said Canada believes the best solution is to return the civilians to their homes as soon as possible. Sri Lanka says that will happen, but that it needs time to clear land-mines and rebuild towns destroyed by the fighting. Mr. Obhrai said he was told the government intends to have 80% of the war refugees back in their homes within 180 days.

Today, Mr. Obhrai was to meet Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama to discuss a long-term political solution to the ethnic conflict. Canada wants a reconciliation process to start immediately and will officer any assistance requested, Mr. Obhrai said.

[Full Coverage]

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