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European Envoys Fail to Win Sri Lankan Cease-Fire

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The top envoys of two of the United Nations Security Council permanent members are the latest diplomats to apply pressure on Sri Lanka, amid fears of a humanitarian crisis as a 25-year civil war on the island appears near its end.  The British and French foreign ministers met Wednesday with Sri Lanka's leaders and visited displacement camps in the north.  The diplomats failed to secure an immediate truce and only partly succeeded in gaining a government pledge to give international humanitarian workers improved access to refugee Tamils. 

Sri Lanka is again rebuffing diplomatic calls for an immediate halt to its final assault against Tamil rebels, on a sliver of northeastern coastline.

The government contends a pause to military action would only benefit the remaining several hundred hold-outs from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, whose whereabouts are unknown.

Speaking to reporters in Colombo, British Foreign Affairs Secretary David Miliband calls that a mischaracterization of the international calls for a cease-fire.

"The calls have come because of an overwhelming concern with the needs of civilians and the need for long-term peace in Sri Lanka," said Miliband.  "Protection of civilians is absolutely paramount in our minds at this moment."

Tens of thousands of Tamil civilians are believed trapped in the small jungle war zone. The military says its final assault has become the world's largest hostage rescue mission.  It denies reports it is continuing to shell the area, despite a government pledge to stop using all heavy weaponry.

Several hundred thousand Tamils have been displaced by fighting in recent months. Most are in camps which aid workers describe as over-crowded and lacking sufficient  food and medicine.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner says he and Miliband told their Sri Lankan counterpart the world is standing by to help people traumatized by the war.
 
"Leave free the access - access for UN people, access for ICRC [Red Cross], access for NGO's [non-governmental organizations] and access for the medical teams," said Kouchner.

The French envoy says Sri Lanka has accepted this request, apart from access to the combat zone.

The Swedish foreign minister, considered an expert on the situation here, was not invited by Colombo to join his British and French counterparts, as initially expected.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama says Carl Bildt can visit at another time.

"I look for my invitation to be responded [to] as early as next week by the Swedish foreign minister who we value very much of his presence to Sri Lanka," he said.

The unexplained snub has upset relations between Sri Lanka and Sweden. Sweden takes over the rotating European Union presidency in one month.

Officials here have repeatedly accused the United Nations, aid organizations, some countries and international journalists of favoring or colluding with the rebels.

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