Colombo: The foreign ministers of Britain and France said Wednesday they had failed to persuade Sri Lanka to end its offensive against Tamil rebels and allow aid in for civilians trapped by the fighting.
“We tried very hard -- we insisted and we insisted -- but it is up to our friends to allow it or not,” French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner told a news conference after talks with the Sri Lankan government.
British foreign secretary David Miliband also said the talks had ended without a breakthrough, telling Sri Lanka that international calls for a ceasefire were “only to save civilians” and not to help the Tamil Tigers.
“Now is the time for the fighting to stop,” Miliband said. “Sri Lanka’s military advances have been spectacular, but winning the peace is as vital as winning the war.”
Sri Lanka’s leaders say they are on the cusp of victory after 37 years of violence, with the ethnic rebels cornered and outnumbered in a small strip of coastal jungle in the northeast of the island.
Government officials have argued that any truce would only allow the rebels to regroup.
But at the centre of global concern are some 50,000 Tamil civilians who the UN say are unable to escape the fighting.
A UN document circulated among diplomats in Colombo last week also said that as many as 6,500 civilians may have been killed and another 14,000 wounded in the government’s offensive so far this year.
Sri Lanka has for months blocked most aid agencies from working in the conflict zone, and has herded about 100,000 fleeing civilians into overcrowded camps which are guarded by the military.
Aid workers who have visited the camps have testified to food shortages, woeful sanitation, a desperate medical situation and overcrowding.
The two visiting foreign ministers flew to the northern town of Vavuniya to see the plight of war-displaced civilians, officials said.
The ministers are due to leave here early Thursday.
On the eve of their visit, Sri Lankan authorities denied a visa to Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt, who was hoping to join the peace mission -- prompting a major diplomatic row with the European Union.
A Sri Lankan foreign ministry official indicated Colombo felt it had already done enough by letting in Miliband and Kouchner as international pressure for a ceasefire grows.
“The (Swedish) foreign minister is most welcome to visit Sri Lanka on a date in May,” Sri Lankan foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama said.
Bildt described the snub as “exceedingly strange behaviour” and said he had recalled the Swedish envoy to Colombo.