COLOMBO Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa rejected calls from the United States to close army bases in a former war zone as he celebrated the third anniversary on Saturday of the military's victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels.
Fighter jets flew over Colombo and thousands of soldiers paraded in the streets flanked by tanks to mark the 2009 end to the 25-year civil war, a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Sri Lanka's foreign minister to demilitarize the north of the country and protect human rights.
Rajapaksa said reducing the military camps in the former war zone would be a risk to national security.
"There are many who shout that the security forces camps in these areas should be removed. They ask us why they are not removed," he said, pointing out the north was under civilian, not military rule.
"We must ask if we are in a position to remove the armed forces camps in the north and reduce our attention to national security. That is not possible."
Clinton met Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris in Washington on Friday. She stressed the importance of demilitarizing the north and of protecting human rights, including press freedoms, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters at a briefing.
Sri Lanka says it is implementing the recommendations of a reconciliation report and points to fast economic growth in former Tamil Tiger strongholds as evidence of progress.
In March, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a U.S.-sponsored resolution asking Sri Lanka to ensure government troops accused of war crimes towards the end of the war are brought to justice.
In a more conciliatory move, Rajapksa is expected to announce in the next few days the release from prison of his former army chief, who the United States says is a political prisoner.
The government rejects a U.N. report that says tens of thousands of civilians were killed in 2009 in the final months of the war as government troops advanced on the ever-shrinking northern tip of the island controlled by Tamil forces fighting for an independent homeland.
The U.N. panel said it had "credible allegations" that Sri Lankan troops and the Tamil Tigers both carried out atrocities and war crimes, and singled out the government for most of the responsibility for the deaths.
Sri Lanka has acknowledged some civilians were killed in the last months of the offensive, but says the numbers cited by the U.N. panel are vastly exaggerated.
(Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Sophie Hares)