by Amal Jayasinghe
COLOMBO (AFP) – Sri Lanka is "deeply unhappy" at a move by UN chief Ban Ki-moon to name a panel to look into alleged war crimes committed during the final months of the island's civil war, an official said Monday.
Colombo repeated a protest that President Mahinda Rajapakse made to Ban in March, a senior government official who declined to be named told AFP.
"The government is deeply unhappy with the appointment of this panel and made it very clear to the secretary-general himself and other UN representatives that this is unwarranted and uncalled for," the official said.
Ban was due to name the three-member panel later Monday to advise him on the massive military campaign that finally crushed the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in May last year after decades of fighting.
Colombo has been dogged by war crime charges following the final offensive. It has consistently rejected as fabrications videos, pictures and satellite photos released by rights groups as evidence of war crimes.
Ban's move follows a visit to the island last week by Lynn Pascoe, the UN under secretary-general for political affairs.
Pascoe told reporters on Thursday that the panel of experts would advise the UN chief on issues of "international standards" and "accountability" surrounding the end of the war.
Rajapakse warned Ban in March that the appointment of the panel would compel Sri Lanka to take "necessary and appropriate action", although he did not give further details.
The Sri Lankan government last week held official celebrations of the Tigers' defeat, with Rajapakse delivering a speech insisting that his soldiers did not kill a single civilian.
"Our troops carried a gun in one hand and a copy of the human rights charter in the other," the president said. "Our guns were not fired at a single civilian."
Rights groups as well as the United States and the European Union think otherwise and have said the allegations are credible and worth investigating.
The UN itself has said that at least 7,000 ethnic Tamil civilians perished in the first four months of last year, just before the government claimed final victory over the Tigers.
The military has also been accused of executing rebels as they surrendered.
The exact mandate of Ban's panel is not yet clear, but diplomats said the team could be a precursor to a full-blown war crimes investigation.
US President Barack Obama sent two senior advisers to Colombo last week to urge Sri Lanka to promote post-war ethnic reconciliation by tackling claims of war crimes committed by both sides in the fighting.
"The US has strong, credible allegations of evidence of atrocities during the prosecution of the war against the Tamil Tigers," a US source, who declined to be named, said after the high-level visit.
Colombo managed to stave off censure at the UN Security Council last year thanks to the support of Russia and China, close allies and key suppliers of military hardware to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka's major aid donor Japan has backed Ban's panel and said it would be "useful" in reconciling Tamils and the ethnic majority Sinhalese.
Yasushi Akashi, special peace envoy to Sri Lanka, ended a five-day visit Sunday urging Colombo to accept the UN panel, but said he detected a "lack of flexibility and openness" in Sri Lanka's attempts to promote reconciliation. [courtesy: AFP]