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U.S. urges Sri Lanka to act on rights abuses

COLOMBO, Aug 3 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka must act to prevent human rights abuses including abductions, the intimidation of media personnel and the recruitment of child soldiers as it fights a 25-year civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said on Sunday.

“We have been concerned about the continuing reports of abductions, disappearances, the detention of some people and reports of intimidation against the media,” Boucher said.

“All these things need to be stopped. The government needs to take action against the perpetrators,” he said.

Boucher was in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo as an observer at the 15th summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), from July 27 to Aug. 3.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) -- branded a terrorist organisation by the United States -- has been fighting for an independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka for minority Tamils since 1983 in a war that has killed more than 70,000 people. Fighting has intensified since the government pulled out of a 6-year-old ceasefire pact in January.

Thousands of people have been displaced and rights groups have reported hundreds of abductions, disappearances and killings blamed on both sides.

Sri Lanka was ranked the world’s third deadliest place for journalists last year, after Iraq and Somalia, by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), a Paris-based organisation promoting media freedom worldwide.

This year alone, 12 journalists have been attacked, with one hacked to death. Media groups say the government has failed to apprehend any of the attackers.

“We have made it clear we are concerned about the human rights situation here,” Boucher said, saying reports of abuses should be fully investigated and legal action taken.

Fighting is now concentrated in the north with near daily land, sea and air attacks as the government pursues a strategy to retake the Tigers’ northern stronghold.

Boucher said: “We stand with the people of Sri Lanka who fight terrorism and we understand people need to go on with their lives safely, free from bombings on busses and shopping malls, attacks in the streets.”

He urged Sri Lanka to demobilise its paramilitary forces and stop the recruitment of child soldiers.

Analysts say the military has the upper hand in the latest phase of the war given superior air power and numbers. It has captured swathes of terrain in the island’s east. But, they say, there is no clear winner on the horizon.

The military says the Tigers hit back with suicide attacks, increasingly targeting civilians, and roadside bombs. Experts say the violence has deterred some tourists and spooked some investors in the $27-billion economy. (Reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Janet Lawrence)