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November 07, 2009

Sri Lanka Objects to US Plan to Interview Army Chief

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Sri Lanka has raised strong objections to plans by United States authorities to interview the country's army chief, who is currently visiting the country.  The Sri Lankan government expects the general to be questioned about alleged war crimes committed during the country's civil war.   

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama wants the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to drop plans to quiz General Sarath Fonseka.

Army chief Fonseka, who is visiting his daughters in Oklahoma City, holds an American permanent-residency card. Sri Lankan officials say U.S. immigration authorities have asked the general to be available for questioning on Wednesday before renewing his card.

That request has raised a storm in Sri Lanka and prompted Foreign Minister Bogollagama to tell the American ambassador in Colombo that the U.S. government should "resist" from attempts to interview the general.

The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry says American authorities want to question the army chief about allegations of war crimes committed during the final months of a war which ended with the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels in May.

The victory ended Sri Lanka's quarter-century civil war, but has been clouded with questions raised by the international community about reports of widespread human rights abuses committed in the course of the military campaign. 

The head of Colombo's Center for Policy Alternatives, Paikiasothy Saravanmutu, says the Sri Lankan government is touchy about such allegations.

"It is quite sensitive because, after all, they are very grave allegations as far as war crimes and crimes against humanity are concerned," he noted.  "And, the Sri Lankan government has taken the view that nothing of the sort happened and that if there are allegations they are best addressed nationally."

Officials in Colombo are especially concerned that the American authorities will press the Sri Lankan army chief about the alleged involvement of Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in human rights violations.  Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is the president's brother. He, along with General Fonseka, is credited with crafting the successful military campaign against the Tamil Tigers.

A U.S. State Department report last month called on the Sri Lankan government to investigate alleged rights abuses and punish any people responsible.

The Sri Lankan government has described the report as "unsubstantiated", but has promised to appoint an independent committee to investigate the charges. However, analysts say a domestic probe would not be credible.