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In 16 Hours in Sri Lanka, UN's Ban To Overfly Zone of Carnage, Dine with President

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

COLOMBO, May 23 -- In the wake of what UN officials called a bloodbath on the beach, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Press are set for a sixteen hour jaunt around Sri Lanka on Saturday, which some call the victory tour. On military helicopters the entourage will travel to Manik Farm, which the UN's John Holmes has repeatedly called the largest camp for Internally Displaced People in the world. Only Zones 1 and 4 will be toured.

  Currently, neither the UN nor non-governmental organizations are allowed to enter the camps with vehicles. A briefing will be given by, among others, Major General G A Chandrasiri and a hospital will be visited.

   Next from Manik Farm's helipad, the group will "over fly [the] No Fire Zone," the scene of much firing and dying, including in the days after the government declared victory but neither the Red Cross nor UN were allowed into the zone to search for or help the wounded.

  Ban's chief and staff and envoy Vijay Nambiar received a similar fly-over on May 22 and concluded from the air, according to UN officials, that no civilians remain in the Zone. Inner City Press has a camera with a zoom, but there's talk of bodies in bunkers, bodies buried, evidence destroyed.

   The group will lunch at the government Air Base in Anuradhapura, the site of a prison in which as Inner City Press has reported UNHCR staff member Mr. Ragushankar Kulathaivelu has been imprisoned since last Fall. He and his mother were arrested on October 5, 2008.

  From where he worked for UNHCR, in Mannar, he was visiting his mother in Vavuniya, when the authorities came to arrest his mother for renting a room to an alleged LTTE supporter, who had identified himself as a student.

   The mother died in December, in jail. Ragushankar Kulathaivelu nevertheless remains in prison in Anuradhapura. Reportedly, even after the wipe out of the No Fire zone, conditions for such prisoners have grown worse, with verbal and other abuse.

   This is a UN system staff member, arrested along with his mother for no reason, and still in custody. UNHCR's country representative has said nothing publicly about it, and has not responded to written questions on the matter. Inner City Press on the plane to Sri Lanka asked the UN's Holmes about the case. What will be done? Perhaps it will be a working lunch.

UN's Ban and Sri Lanka foreign minister, guards with guns, fly-over to come

   Ban's entourage includes not only Holmes and Nambiar but also the head of the UN Department of Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe, Ban's spokesperson Choi Soung-ah and Director of Communications Michael Meyer, as well as Department of Public Information staff. Much administrative work has gone into the trip, but its outcome is far from certain, in fact is heavily maligned from many quarters.

   The group then flies en masse to Kandy, where Ban will meet with President Mahinda Rajapaksa then hold a half-hour press conference in the Queen's Hotel. Then Ban will dine with President Rajapaksa, as Ban told Inner City Press the two did in Seoul, before that sharing a helicopter ride over a port since re-development by the Chinese.

   At the Sri Lankan Mission to the UN in New York, an official who restricted this reporter's passport to two days and said for any longer, a background check would be performed in Colombo told Inner City Press of the mixing of Sinhanese hoppers with Tamil those, "in food you see we fix," she said. What or who is on the menu and agenda at Ban's and Rajapaksa's dinner is not known.

   Will Mr. Ban raise the incarceration of the doctors who remained in the No Fire zone offering treatment and casualty figures? Will he ask about Tissainayagam, a journalist held without charges for more than a year? Will the two discuss Amendment 13 to the Sri Lankan constitution, which promised too-limited devolution or powers but nevertheless was never implemented, and reportedly might now be further undermined?

   What about the long-promised investigation into the killings of newspaper editors and aid workers, from Action Contre la Faim and elsewhere? What about what's called the government's blacklist of 837 internationals?

   What about the Memorandum of Understanding now being demanded from NGOs by the government of Sri Lanka, which requires them to provide "all information" to the government? (See Inner City Press' exclusive report. here.)

   What about Bousa prison, where witnesses tell of routine torture of those detained?

   Unless something changes, the whole group will be packed back on the UN plane, at Katunayake International Airport, and will leave the country before Saturday at midnight. Watch this site for updates, whenever and wherever the Internet can be found.

Footnote / full disclosure: this reporter has been granted a visa, albeit for only two days, gratis by the Sri Lankan mission to the UN. A request for more than two days resulted in instructions to write a letter, which will be considered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo “after a background check.” Watch this site.

And see, a May 13 Inner City Press debate on Sri Lanka, here

Ambulance aflame in "No Fire" Zone, May 13, 2009

In the final week of fighting we ran this message, from Dr. Sathiyamoorthy

13 May 2009

Dear Sir / Madam,

Heavy battle started since 5.30 am. Many wounded civilians were brought to hospital and hospital is not providing services because hospital was under shell attack. Few staff reported duty. nearly thousand patients are waiting to get daily treatment. But even simple wound dressing and giving antibiotics problems. So many wounded have to die. In the ward among patients many death bodies are there.

Looking hospital seen and hearing the civilians cry really disaster. Did they make any mistake do the world by the innocent. But the important sta[keholders] are just listening the situation and not helping the people.


Regional director of Health Services

Kilinochchi (Now at No Fire Zone)

  From the UN's May 18 noon briefing transcript:

Inner City Press: on Mr. Nambiar. Can you say whether while he is there the issue...there are some saying that there are many people that are now injured in the (inaudible) care in what had been called the no fire zone; and that the ICRC has no access. Is this something this in the case there some doctors who used to report on the casualty figures who have gone missing as reported in the Guardian and the Independent. Are these issues, I mean you mentioned he’s talking about the IDPs instead of post-conflict; what about people that are actually at this moment sort of dying without medical care...(interrupted)?

Deputy Spokesperson Okabe: Well, that’s the subject that I think John Holmes is going to come and talk to you about right now.

Inner City Press: Burt can you say whether Mr. Nambiar, I guess I am just wondering... -- John Holmes is not there, Mr. Nambiar is -- is this an issue that the UN is urgently raising with the Government or not?

Deputy Spokesperson Okabe: The Chef de Cabinet’s visit, as we mentioned to you, focuses exactly on the same issues that I just mentioned; which are the United Nations’ and the Secretary-General’s concern. Now, obviously the immediate humanitarian needs on the ground are the utmost priority for all of us.

But what about the doctors?

 On Thursday May 7, Inner City Press asked Associate UN Spokesperson Farhan Haq:

Inner City Press: I wanted to ask about this invitation that’s been made to the Secretary-General to visit Sri Lanka. First I wanted to ask if on Monday when he met with the Ambassador of Japan, whether he was briefed on a visit by Mr. [Yasushi] Akashi to Sri Lanka and was urged by Japan that he should take this visit. And I also wanted to know whether he would be in New York 11 May for the Middle East debate, and 15 May to meet with the Chinese diplomats, that in fact this is one reason that he is considering not going, as I have been told by senior Secretariat staff.

Associate Spokesperson Haq: Well, first of all, we don’t announce the trips of the Secretary-General until they are close to occurring. And in that regard, I don’t have anything to announce about a trip to Sri Lanka at this stage. At the same time, as Michèle told you yesterday, and is still true for today, if the Secretary-General believes that visiting Sri Lanka can have an impact in terms of saving lives there, he will certainly try to go. So he is considering that. But part of what he is studying is what the impact of a potential trip would be.

Inner City Press: But if he had that belief, that would be without regard to attending the 11 May Middle East thing or the 15 May meeting with the Chinese diplomats? I am told that’s a major factor in his planning.

Associate Spokesperson: Scheduling is a separate issue. What we’re talking about is the decision of whether or not to go. And certainly if he can make a difference and can save civilian lives, which is what his priority has been on this case, then he will go. At present, we don’t have anything to announce at all in this regard, though.

Question: Just one last one on that. I wanted to know, can you at least confirm that he met with Ambassador Takasu on Monday in his office inside the Security Council? Can you give a read-out of that meeting and say why it wasn’t on his public schedule?

Associate Spokesperson: I can confirm that he met with the Permanent Representative of Japan. He did that, yes. It was in his office in the Security Council. We don’t provide readouts of meetings with ambassadors.

Question: And why wasn’t it on the schedule?

Associate Spokesperson: It came up all of a sudden when he had a bit of free time in between other appointments on a fairly hectic day.

  On Friday May 8, Inner City Press asked Deputy Spokesperson Okabe:

Inner City Press: On the invitation by the Government of Sri Lanka to the Secretary-General to visit, is there any progress in thinking? In the alternative, is the Secretary-General, is he considering invoking Article 99 or responsibility to protect or making some other move of some type on the situation in Sri Lanka?

Deputy Spokesperson: I have nothing beyond what we’ve been saying from this podium this week on Sri Lanka, including what the Secretary-General himself has said earlier this week.

   What Ban said did not involve calling for a cease-fire. Watch this site.

 Channel 4 in the UK with allegations of rape and disappearance

  Click here for an Inner City Press YouTube channel video, mostly UN Headquarters footage, about civilian deaths in Sri Lanka.

Click here for Inner City Press' March 27 UN debate

Click here for Inner City Press March 12 UN (and AIG bailout) debate

Click here for Inner City Press' Feb 26 UN debate

Click here for Feb. 12 debate on Sri Lanka

Click here for Inner City Press' Jan. 16, 2009 debate about Gaza

Click here for Inner City Press' review-of-2008 UN Top Ten debate

Click here for Inner City Press' December 24 debate on UN budget, Niger

Click here from Inner City Press' December 12 debate on UN double standards

Click here for Inner City Press' November 25 debate on Somalia, politics

and this October 17 debate, on Security Council and Obama and the UN.

* * *

These reports are usually also available through Google News and on Lexis-Nexis.

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

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