Foreign Minister briefs diplomatic community on the current situation in the North

Foreign Minister briefs diplomatic community on the current situation in the North

Statement by Hon. Rohitha Bogollagama, MP, Minister of Foreign Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 18 February 2009

Your Excellencies, Ladies & Gentlemen,

As part of my regular briefings to the Diplomatic Corps, I have convened this meeting today in order to deal with two specific subjects; the North-Western and the Central Provincial Council elections, and the current situation in the North.

The Provincial Council elections which were held over the weekend, gave the government an overwhelming victory which is a clear indication of the public mood prevailing in the country today. The election result was never in doubt. It was indeed a referendum and an endorsement of the policies being followed by the government under the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and specifically, on the course of action being followed on eradicating terrorism. This is the third time that Provincial Council elections have been held since the election of the present government for five Provinces, all of which have been won by the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance.

The high overall voter turnout of over 60% underscores the abiding faith of the people in Sri Lanka’s deeply rooted democratic tradition. Independent election monitoring bodies such as the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) and the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) have concluded that the two Provincial Council elections were free and fair, and endorsed by the UNP Central Province Chief Ministerial candidate S.B. Dissanayake who stated, “the UPFA’s victory shows that people are dedicated to strengthen the government that is engaged in annihilating terrorism”.

It is also significant to note that the rejection of terrorism by the people encompasses broad support of all communities in the country. As President Rajapaksa noted in his message in the aftermath of the election victory, “it also demonstrates that the people endorse the programme of the government to totally eradicate terrorism and win democratic rights of a fraternal section of our own people”.

The people of this country, both in the North as well as in the South are tired of the conflict and the colossal loss of life and the destruction of property. The people are yearning for peace and have spoken loud and clear and, it is the duty of the government to listen to the voice of the people and to deliver on the responsibility entrusted to the government by the people. Equally important is the responsibility of the international community to pay heed to this resounding rejection of terrorism by the people of Sri Lanka.

To achieve the goal of ushering in lasting peace and stability in the country, the government has to, on the one hand continue the ongoing military operations in the North to gain control of the remaining areas held by the LTTE and, on the other hand, and more importantly, to rescue the civilians who are being held hostage by the LTTE numbering around 70,000. The military has achieved tremendous successes and at present the LTTE is confined to a rapidly shrinking area in the Mullaitivu district.

Mindful of the paramount need to avoid civilian casualties, the government has shifted the no-fire zone to the Mullaitivu coast line, where the LTTE has herded the hapless civilians, whose plight has been cynically exploited by the LTTE to win international sympathy.

As noted in the UN - Sri Lanka Statement of 16th February, issued by the Office of the UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator in Colombo, “the LTTE continues to actively prevent people leaving, and reports indicate that a growing number of people trying to leave have been shot and sometimes killed. There are indications that children as young as 14 are being recruited into the ranks of the LTTE.” We strongly condemn the despicable and abominable practice by the LTTE of continuing to recruit young children in armed combat. The onus is now upon the international community to exert its utmost pressure on the LTTE to free the civilians who are being held captive, and in particular immediately release the innocent children who have been forced into their fighting ranks.

Since 1st March 2008, 35,840 civilians have managed to flee from the clutches of the LTTE, out of which 30,337 in this month alone were able to escape and come into government controlled areas, risking life and limb, amidst LTTE fire directed at them. The government has set up transit points and the IDPs are transferred to welfare villages until they are resettled in their original places of habitation. We appreciate the assistance from the UN system and the ICRC who are working with the government authorities in providing food, shelter, sanitation, health facilities etc.. There is a huge task ahead for the government to resettle these people so that they could rebuild their lives in peace and in a secure environment.

I wish to call upon the Diplomatic Corps who represent the international community to understand the complexities of the current ground situation in the North. The military has been and will continue to be cautious in their operations in respect of minimizing civilian casualties. It should be borne in mind that our security forces are paying a very high price in undertaking this humanitarian mission to rescue our fellow Tamil citizens who are trapped behind LTTE lines.

Sri Lanka has welcomed the statement made by the Co-Chairs calling upon the LTTE to release the civilians and lay down their weapons. Tomorrow, the Under Sectary General for Humanitarian Affairs of the UN, Sir John Holmes, with whom I had a telephone conversation yesterday, will be visiting Sri Lanka at our invitation to discuss ways and means of addressing the humanitarian issues of concern. I look forward to a fruitful dialogue with Sir John during his visit.

Looking beyond, at the post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction as well as the need to arrive at an early political solution, the President has decided to call a meeting of the TNA,TULF, EPDP,CWC, and other Tamil political parties in order to have an inclusive process which will be reflected in the future political agenda. As I noted in my statement earlier this week, the public mandate at the recent Provincial Council elections will strengthen our call to support the efforts of the government at this crucial time to forge a national consensus. The fact that 70% of the people of Wayamba and 60% of the people in the Central Province voted for the Government is a clear manifestation of the people’s endorsement of our agenda for Sri Lanka.

It is our sincere desire to fully engage with the international community in addressing these issues and seek your cooperation in this endeavour.

Finally, I wish to thank all representatives of the Diplomatic Corps for their kind presence today for this briefing at short notice.

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