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Rajapaksa woos minority Tamils as Sri Lanka presidential vote nears

[Times Online UK, Monday, 11 January 2010 08:16 No Comment]

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President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka took his re-election campaign to the Tamil heartland of Jaffna yesterday on his first visit to the region since his army defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels in May.

Mr Rajapaksa, who is facing a presidential election in two weeks’ time, promised to speed up reconstruction and resettlement efforts for the 300,000 Tamils who fled from the conflict zone and were detained in internment camps until last month. “The President moved about freely and spoke with the civilians,” his spokesman, Chandrapala Liyanage, said.

The visit came just over a week after a similar campaign trip to Jaffna by General Sarath Fonseka, the former army chief who led the campaign against the Tigers but is now the main contender in the election.

Mr Rajapaksa and General Fonseka are both members of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, which widely supported their campaign to end the 26-year civil war. But with the Sinhalese vote now split, the two men are also now competing to woo the country’s Tamils, who constitute an eighth of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people.

General Fonseka has been courting Tamil votes particularly aggressively: he has even accused the Government of ordering the army to kill Tiger leaders as they surrendered. Last week he won the support of the Tamil National Alliance, the dominant Tamil political party, which used to be close to the Tigers.

Mr Rajapaksa responded on Saturday by attending a ceremony at which more than 700 former Tigers were reunited with family members after being released from internment camps. “The terrorists led you astray and the suffering you endured as a result is beyond words,” the President said, speaking in Tamil. “We will give you employment for your skills and you must start lives anew.”

But the opposition People’s Liberation Front (JVP), which also backs General Fonseka, said yesterday that the new concessions Mr Rajapaksa was offering Tamils were no more than an election gimmick.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake, a JVP spokesman, dismissed them as another ploy to win Tamil votes. “There is no transparent basis for the release,” he said. “We want to know on what basis they are still holding over 11,000 people in custody.”

The Government is also facing new calls for a war crimes investigation over video footage which appears to show troops shooting dead blindfolded, naked Tamils in the final months of the war.

Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said last week that the footage appeared to be authentic following examination by US-based independent experts.

Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, responded with fresh calls for an investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the last stages of the conflict.

However, Sri Lankan officials repeated their assertion that the footage was fabricated and rejected any war crimes investigation, saying that Mr Alston was prejudiced against their country.

“We believe his conclusions are highly subjective and biased,” said Mahinda Samarasinghe, the Human Rights Minister.

“We believe he is on a crusade of his own to force a war-crime inquiry against Sri Lanka.”

Rajapaksa woos minority Tamils as Sri Lanka presidential vote nears – Times Online

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