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End Tamil refugees' suffering, Sri Lanka told

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
May 20, 2009 12:10 IST
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A bi-partisan group of some of the most influential US Senators has called on the Sri Lankan government to expeditiously alleviate the suffering of thousands of Tamil refugees and return them to their homes by the end of the year.

While acknowledging that the end of the war can be a 'turning point for the people of Sri Lanka', the lawmakers said in the short-term it is imperative that the government of Sri Lanka take 'immediate steps to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the north for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons by facilitating humanitarian access to the government camps and fulfilling its promise to return the majority home by the end of the year'.

The lawmakers who made the joint statement were Senators John F Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, who chairs the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Committee from Indiana, Bob Casey, Pennsylvania Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on South Asian Affairs, Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican and Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It was Leahy, who led the campaign to slash security assistance to Sri Lanka two years ago, alleging that the Sri Lankan forces had committed rampant human rights abuses and the miscreants had not been brought to justice.

The lawmakers, in their statement responding to the declaration by the President of that the decades-long war with the LTTE had finally ended, said, 'We welcome the news that Sri Lanka's long-running civil war has been brought to a close. The war had, for the past 26 years, led to the people of Sri Lanka suffering enormously from a conflict that appeared intractable.'

Tabulating the human costs, they said, 'Some 70,000 people were killed, many more injured, and countless others were uprooted and force to flee the violence.'

The lawmakers said, particularly in the recent months, 'civilians in the north-eastern part of the island have faced terrible hardship, and exceptionally difficult conditions still persist for hundreds of thousands that have been internally displaced.'

'The scale of suffering has been obscured by denial of access to humanitarian workers, journalists, and most other outside observers,' they said.

But, the Senators said, 'Today can be a turning point for the people of Sri Lanka. The government has a chance to forge a long-term political situation, one that acknowledges the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans, including Sinhalese, Tamils and others groups.'

'This means taking steps toward reconciliation and justice, including devolution of power to local bodies as provided by the Constitution of Sri Lanka,' they said, and while conceding that it would not be easy, added, "We are looking to the leaders of the government of Sri Lanka to move the country forward in peace after more than a quarter-century of conflict.'

Meanwhile, the Obama administration -- also echoing the sentiments of the lawmakers -- bemoaned that 'the 26-year-old conflict had cost tens of thousands of Sinhalese and Tamil lives, uprooted countless Sri Lankans from their homes, left thousands maimed or wounded, and has brutally divided the nation.'

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said, 'To truly defeat terrorism, the government of Sri Lanka needs to begin to heal the wounds of the conflict and work toward building a democratic, prosperous, tolerant and united Sri Lanka and work toward justice and reconciliation for both sides.'

'A lasting peace in Sri Lanka depends on Sinhalese, Tamils and other Sri Lankans working together to achieve new power sharing arrangements that safeguard and promote the rights of all Sri Lankans,' Kelly added.

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC