Acrimony flares, US says diplomats not LTTE’s target

[TamilNet, Sunday, 04 March 2007, 00:13 GMT]
Amid growing acrimony within the Sri Lankan government over the LTTE mortar attack Tuesday on military helicopters carrying foreign ambassadors and UN officials to Batticaloa district, the American ambassador to Sri Lanka, Robert O. Blake, contradicted Colombo’s assertion that the Tigers had tried to assassinate the diplomats. Meanwhile Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary says the diplomats should share the blame for the near-disaster for asking to visit Batticaloa. He slammed as “interference” attempts by foreign dignitaries and NGOs to visit the war torn Northeast.

Two Sri Lankan military helicopters ferried several international diplomats, including the Ambassadors to the United States, Germany, Italy and Japan along with several UN officials to the restive Batticaloa district.

However an LTTE mortar attack struck the military airfield and stadium converted into a military base as the helicopters and a fixed wing aircraft carrying more officials landed there.

Italian Ambassador Pio Mariani was slightly wounded by a piece of shrapnel which lodged in his scalp while US Ambassador Robert Blake’s arm was grazed by a stone or piece of shrapnel.

The shelling ceased when a UN official alerted LTTE headquarters in Kilinochchi.

The Tigers said customary operational protocol whereby the government notifies them of impending flights into the war-torn Northeast by international officials was not followed.

The Sri Lankan government admitted the LTTE had not been notified but denounced the shelling as a deliberate attempt to kill the Ambassadors.

However, speaking to the Sunday Times, Mr. Blake said: “while I do not believe the LTTE intended to target diplomats and UN officials, the United States strongly condemns all terrorism and calls on the LTTE to renounce terrorism and violence.”

The LTTE attack has embarrassed the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse, which had been making political capital in the south on the basis of a series of successful military offensives over the past few months which it claimed had cleared the LTTE from the east.

A senior diplomat who was part of the delegation, expressing his wish to be anonymous, told The Nation newspaper: “It was a careless and reckless operation [by the government]. Everything which could go wrong did go wrong. This was a very foolish thing. It was very embarrassing for the Sri Lankan government.”

The incident is now evolving into a diplomatic and domestic row with the Foreign and Defence Ministries saying that the Human Rights and Disaster Management Ministry had not heeded their advice on the diplomats’ trip.

“Defence Ministry officials say even though they approved the trip they had advised against it from the very beginning,” The Nation newspaper said.

Army Commander, Lt. Gen Sarath Fonseka advised Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe against this particular tour “since the ground environment was not conducive for such VIP movement,” the paper said.

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Rohitha Bogollagama, who had to rush back from China where he had arrived Monday as part of President Rajapakse’s 100-strong delegation, criticized the diplomats for not following “traditional procedure.”

According to Mr. Bogollagama, any diplomat leaving the capital city of a country must seek the clearance of the Foreign Ministry and in this instance, permission had only been obtained from Sri Lanka’s Defence Ministry, he was quoted as saying.

Minister Samarasinghe, denying that he was advised against the particular trip said he would have cancelled the tour if that were the case. He also refuted Mr. Bogollagama’s claims that the Foreign Ministry was not briefed, citing the presence of the ministry’s Additional Secretary at the planning meeting.

Meanwhile Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that the diplomats should also share the blame for the incident since they wanted to visit the Northeast.

“I’m not responsible for this [incident] since I’m always against these INGOs, NGOs and even the diplomatic missions interfering [in the Northeast],” Mr. Gotabhaya told The Nation.

“I have told them not to travel to these areas but they don’t listen. When I tell them this I’m accused of many things. They say I’m against the Tamil people and do not allow these people to go to these areas and that I’m covering up,” he said.

Mr. Gotabhaya says he had refused authorization for the American Ambassador to go to Mannar on several occasions.

“I have advised the Netherland’s Ambassador against travelling to certain areas in the Ampara district. When I say this some of them think that I’m hiding things from them” he added.

“When the President went to Vakarai, he took that risk,” Mr. Gotabhaya, who is also President Rajapakse’s brother, said.

“Likewise if these people want to go to these areas they should be ready to take certain risk also.”

External Links:
Nation: War on peace and diplomacy
ST: Close encounter of the Tiger kind


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