- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 23, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka | U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed Saturday to a triumphant Sri Lanka to seize its moment of victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels to resolve long-standing grievances of the Tamil minority. The world body head also said he would seek permission for more international aid to enter camps where about 300,000 desperate war refugees are sheltered.

Mr. Ban was saluted by a military honor guard of soldiers in white uniforms upon his arrival late Friday in Sri Lanka for a 24-hour visit.

Mr. Ban planned to fly by helicopter over the devastated war zone in the north, where the Sri Lankan military has crushed a separatist insurgency that had led to a quarter-century of warfare and suicide attacks.

Mr. Ban met with Sri Lanka’s foreign minister early Saturday, saying that his “visit is taking place at a critically important and defining moment in the history of Sri Lanka.”

“Now that the long decades of conflict are over, it is time for Sri Lankans to heal the wounds and unite without regards to ethnic and religious identity. That is why I am here as secretary-general of the United Nations, to offer help, whatever I can do.”

Mr. Ban said his first priority is “to ensure that humanitarian assistance is given to many displaced persons. I know that there are more than 300,000 displaced persons who are badly in need of humanitarian assistance - food, water and sanitation.”

Mr. Ban’s chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, said on the flight from Frankfurt that Mr. Ban will discuss the reconciliation process the government should begin with the Tamils, who are 18 percent of the population and who complain of systematic discrimination and harassment by the Sinhalese majority.

“The process of national reconciliation, we feel, must be all-inclusive so that it can fully address the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils as well as other minorities,” Mr. Nambiar said. “It is important that victory becomes a victory for all Sri Lankans.”

Mr. Ban is the first major international figure to visit Sri Lanka since President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared victory over the rebels earlier this week.

At a festive victory rally Friday, Mr. Rajapaksa referred to suggestions that he and his leadership should be investigated for war crimes.

“They wanted to take [us] to international criminal courts. Some are trying to do this even now,” he told a crowd of many thousands. “But I am not afraid of walking up to any gallows, having defeated the world’s worst terrorists, and I know that I have the confidence and the strength of my people.”

Releasing casualty figures for the first time, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said a total of 6,260 soldiers, sailors and policemen were killed in the latest round of fighting that began in 2006 after a four-year cease-fire crumbled.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said 22,000 rebel fighters also died in that period, although it was not clear how the figure was calculated. The U.N. says at least 7,000 civilians were killed in the final offensive, and between 80,000 and 100,000 people were killed since the war began in 1983.

The body of rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, who was killed in the final battle after the army had squeezed the remnants of the rebel force into a narrow strip alongside a lagoon, was cremated and his ashes dispersed “into the air,” Brig. Nanayakkara said.

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