COLOMBO: Sri Lanka will not grant visas to U.N. investigators probing war crimes allegedly committed during the island's decades-long separatist conflict, President Mahinda Rajapakse said Tuesday.
Sri Lanka has refused to accept the authority of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which voted in March to investigate allegations that the military killed 40,000 civilians in the final months of the separatist war, which ended in 2009.
But it is the first time that Rajapakse has said U.N. investigators will not be allowed into the country, effectively barring them from face-to-face access to Sri Lankans wanting to testify.
"We will not allow them into the country," said Rajapakse, who is under international pressure to cooperate with the U.N.-mandated investigation.
Rajapakse said however that his government was cooperating with all other U.N. agencies.
"We are saying that we do not accept it (the probe). We are against it," he told Colombo-based foreign correspondents at his official residence.
"But when it comes to other U.N. agencies, we are always ready to fully cooperate and fully engage with them," he said.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other leaders have urged Colombo to cooperate with the UNHRC after ending a prolonged separatist war that pitted ethnic minority Tamil rebels and the largely Sinhalese army in a drawn out ethnic conflict.
Outgoing U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay earlier this month suggested that her investigators looking into allegations of mass killings may not have to travel to Sri Lanka at all.
She said there was a "wealth of information" outside the country.
Her remarks prompted allegations from Sri Lanka's foreign ministry that her investigation was on a "preconceived trajectory" and that her "prejudice and lack of objectivity" were unfortunate.
Colombo insists that its troops did not commit war crimes while crushing the Tamil Tiger rebel movement at the end of a conflict which stretched for more than three decades and claimed more than 100,000 lives.
Pillay, who visited Sri Lanka last year, has previously accused Rajapakse's government of becoming authoritarian, and warned that rights defenders and journalists were at risk in the country even after the end of the war.
The government conceded a degree of ground last month when it asked a panel already investigating missing persons to expand its work and investigate actions of both troops and Tamil rebels.
Rajapakse said Tuesday that he was naming two more foreign experts - an Indian and a Pakistani - to join three other international legal experts already on a panel of advisors helping the presidential Commission of Inquiry.
Rajapakse said he was willing to give "even two more years" to the commission to complete its work. The commission said it was probing 19,471 cases of missing persons as of Tuesday and completed hearings only in respect of 939 cases.
The president added Tuesday that Indian rights activist Avdhash Kaushal and Pakistani lawyer Ahmer Bilal Soofi to join British lawyers Desmond de Silva and Geoffrey Nice and U.S. law professor David Crane, all former U.N. war crimes prosecutors.
The president denied that the foreigners were named as part of a whitewash and insisted that the government was serious about investigating rights abuses.
"We appointed these foreign experts because the commission itself asked for it. They (the commission) thought it would be helpful if we had these experts to advise them," Rajapakse said.
In a government decree published last month, Rajapakse said the commission would investigate the military's "adherence to or neglect... of laws of armed conflict and international humanitarian law".
The commission is the latest investigation initiated by Colombo. Experts and activists have said earlier attempts amounted to a whitewash.