- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

NORTHEAST COAST, Sri Lanka | Sri Lanka’s former war zone is a wasteland, its earth scorched and pocked by craters. Cars and trucks lie overturned near bunkers beside clusters of battered tents.

The government has denied firing heavy weapons into what had been a battlefield densely populated with civilians. But the helicopter tour the military gave U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a group of journalists Saturday revealed widespread devastation.

Civilians who escaped the zone said they came under intense shelling from both the rebels and the government.

“We ran for our lives from the shelling in the north,” said one man who gave his name as Krishnathurai. “It was coming from both sides, the Tamil Tigers and the military, and we were stuck in the middle.”

The sandy coastal strip where the final battles of the quarter-century civil war were fought was dotted with patches of charred earth and deep recessions. Dark craters were visible amid the grayish earth along the coast.

One area was thick with endless rows of tents, many of them knocked down and damaged. Abandoned vehicles were overturned, some reduced to burnt skeletons. Some huts with thatched roofs were destroyed, while others had no roofs.

In one area near the tents, bunkers appeared to have been constructed of sandbags and barrels.

Along a nearby beach lay a large boat with the rebels’ roaring tiger emblem.

After touring the area, Mr. Ban said the trapped civilians must have undergone “most inhumane suffering.”

The government declared victory over the rebels Monday in the civil war that began in 1983.

In the final weeks, with the rebels boxed into a tiny coastal strip and tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside the battlefield, the government said it would no longer fire heavy weapons.

But government doctors in the area - as well as human rights groups and foreign leaders - said intense shelling continued, killing hundreds of civilians. The U.N. Human Rights Council has planned a special session on Sri Lanka on Monday in Geneva amid international calls for a war-crimes investigation into the military’s conduct.

According to private U.N. documents, at least 7,000 civilians were killed in the final months of fighting.

At the Manik Farm displacement camp, some civilians said there was little food or water. They complained they were not allowed to leave and that their male relatives had been detained by the military, presumably under suspicion they were rebel fighters.

“I don’t know where my husband is,” said Krishnaleela, 42.

Mr. Ban appealed to the government to act quickly to improve conditions for the nearly 300,000 ethnic-Tamil civilians displaced by the fighting. He also called for aid groups to get unfettered access to the camps and welcomed Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s promise to resettle the bulk of the displaced by the end of the year.

Mark Cutts, a senior U.N. humanitarian officer, said Manik Farm was erected almost overnight and is the world’s largest displacement camp.

“There’s 200,000 people here. This is a very overcrowded place, a very big place, and there’s a lot of work still to be done. Conditions, you can see, they’re very basic,” he said.

After his tour of the battlefield, Mr. Ban flew to the central city of Kandy. There he met with Mr. Rajapaksa after the nation’s top Buddhist monks presented the president with the country’s highest honor at a temple reputed to house a tooth from the Buddha.

Mr. Ban and other world leaders have called on Mr. Rajapaksa to quickly address the grievances of the country’s minorities in the wake of the war. The Tamils, 18 percent of the population, claim systematic discrimination and harassment by the Sinhalese majority.

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