British, French foreign ministers hold talks with Rajapaksa (Fifth Lead) (With Image)

April 29th, 2009 - 11:25 pm ICT by IANS  

Colombo, April 29 (IANS) The visiting foreign ministers of Britain and France Wednesday discussed with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa the humanitarian situation in the island’s north, where troops are battling the Tamil Tigers in a small strip of land.
After visiting the northern town of Vavuniya where nearly 180,000 war-displaced civilians are housed in refugee camps and welfare centres, British Foreign Minister David Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner met Rajapaksa at the southern town of Embilipitiya, 200 km south of Colombo.

According to a top government official, Rajapaksa has politely and clearly rejected the foreign ministers’ call to allow the UN and other international aid agencies access to the no-fire-zone.

“The president has said there was no need for access to the no-fire-zone by these international agencies. He has pointed out to them that the troops have rescued over 115,000 trapped civilians since April 20 without any access by international agencies,” the official told IANS over telephone on condition of anonymity.

“He had told them that the troops are committed to rescue the remaining civilians trapped there as did before,” the official said.

President Rajapaksa, who is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, however, has expressed his willingness to “consider the request by the visiting envoys to allow more presence of neutral members while screening the civilians entering the government-held areas”.

“He told them that he was willing to consider it, depending on the need,” the official said, stressing that over 18 international NGOs, other than the UN agencies, have been given access to the refugee camps and welfare centres.

The British and French foreign ministers met their Sri Lankan counterpart Rohitha Bogollagama before visiting the refugee camps.

Indicating that the talks have ended in failure, Miliband said: “The international community has been asking for a ceasefire not to save (rebel leader Vellupillai) Prabhakaran, but a call to allow civilians to leave, for long-term peace in Sri Lanka.”

“Now is the time for the fighting to stop. Sri Lanka’s military advances have been spectacular, but winning the peace is as vital as winning the war,” he said.

The ministers, who arrived in Colombo on a one-day trip, also called on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to free the thousands of civilians whose numbers vary between 20,000 to 50,000, instead of holding them hostage.

“They are hostages of the LTTE and we want them freed immediately,” Kouchner appealed to the rebels.

The visit of the British and French foreign ministers has assumed significance after Sri Lanka reportedly refused visa to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who too was to come.

Colombo denied this, saying Bildt is invited to visit the island nation early May.

Sri Lankan troops have virtually cornered the LTTE into a small strip of coastal land less than 10 sq km.

The ruling coalition of President Rajapaksa argues that agreeing to a truce will only give the Tamil Tigers breathing space and allow them to regroup.

The diplomatic efforts by the foreign ministers of Britain and France triggered noisy protests outside the British high commission here by Buddhist monks who asked foreign governments to lay off.

Many carried anti-Britain placards as they squatted near the entrance of the British mission, shouting slogans against “international interference in an internal problem”.

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