KANDY, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon toured Sri Lanka’s biggest refugee camp Saturday and said the country did not have the resources to deal with the tens of thousands who fled fighting with Tamil Tiger rebels.
Ban’s trip was the highest-level international visit to Sri Lanka since the government declared victory Monday over the Tamil Tiger rebels in a 25-year war. Ban also flew over the final battleground and met President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Ban told Rajapaksa the U.N. and other international humanitarian agencies needed immediate and unimpeded access to camps that are housing 290,000 people who escaped rebel-held areas as a military onslaught bore down on the separatists.
Ban toured Manik Farm, home to 220,000 refugees living in white tents, and visited a sparse field hospital for wounded civilians. Many refugees complained of overcrowding and said they were not getting proper medical attention.
“The government is doing its utmost,” Ban later told a news conference. “But the government lacks resources.”
Sri Lanka has pledged access to the camps and greater freedom of movement for residents, but says it needs time to weed out potential Tamil Tiger infiltrators. It plans to resettle most of the refugees within six months.
“We will try to work hard to keep that promise realized,” Ban said as he toured Manik Farm, the country’s largest camp. “They need to be resettled as soon as possible.”
Ban called for political reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese and minorities including Tamils. “If not history could repeat itself,” he said, and there could be more violence.
Rajapaksa has already pledged to strike a political deal with Tamils, and said he does not want Sri Lankans viewing the victory over the Tamil Tigers, who were fighting for a separate homeland, as a defeat of the Tamil minority.
The Sri Lankan government has already asked for international help and launched a $151 million appeal with the United Nations to improve the camps and care for those inside.
Ban took a low-level helicopter flight over the coastal strip where the last battle was fought.
Seen from the helicopter were craters filled with water, burned-out vehicles, uprooted and smashed trees and closely packed tents that appeared abandoned in a hurry.
“It was a very sobering visit, very sad and very moving,” Ban said of the scene of the battle.
Ban and other U.N. officials repeatedly criticized the government and Tamil Tigers during the final months of the war, saying the actions of both had resulted in unnecessary deaths of thousands of Sri Lankans trapped in the conflict zone.
Unofficial and unverified U.N. tallies say more than 7,000 civilians were killed and thousands more wounded in the war’s final weeks. That has prompted Western calls for an investigation into potential war crimes and humanitarian law violations.
“We were fired at by both sides,” one older woman at the Manik Farms camp said. She also had a shrapnel wound.
Rajapaksa has dismissed the calls for an investigation and said he was “not afraid of walking up to any gallows, having defeated the world’s worst terrorists.”
The Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council is due to meet this week on Sri Lanka and may want to launch a probe.
The United Nations said this week the civil war had killed between 80,000-100,000 people since it erupted in 1983. The military said Friday it had lost 6,200 troops and killed 22,000 Tigers in the nearly three years of the war’s final phase.
Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Paul Tait and Jon Hemming