U.N. chief backs relief official against Sri Lanka

By Evelyn Leopold, Reuters
Thu Aug 16, 2007 3:35pm EDT
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U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday said comments by a Sri Lankan official calling his humanitarian coordinator a "terrorist" were "unacceptable and unwarranted," a U.N. spokeswoman said.

John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said last week in Colombo that Sri Lanka was among the most dangerous places in the world for humanitarian workers.s

He specifically referred to 17 workers from Action Against Hunger killed execution style in eastern Sri Lanka a year ago.

Several government officials angrily rejected Holmes' statement and demanded a retraction. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, the government's chief whip in Parliament and a cabinet minister, on Wednesday called Holmes a "terrorist" and said he had taken a bribe from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebel group.

U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas told reporters, "We believe them (the comments) to be unwarranted and unacceptable and the secretary-general fully supports the work of his emergency relief coordinator, John Holmes."

She said Holmes, a Briton, has written to Sri Lanka's minister for disaster management and human rights, Mahinda Samarasinghe, saying it was "regrettable that a few words used in an interview have attracted disproportionate attention and have threatened to overshadow his sincere desire to have the most constructive relationship possible with the government."

Holmes, according to Montas, said he had simply referred "factually to the terrible incident that has taken place regarding humanitarian workers last year" and the need to prevent such events in the future.

During his visit to the island nation, Holmes said almost 30 aid workers had been killed over the past 18 months. The Consortium for Humanitarian Agencies, an umbrella group of 104 aid agencies operating in Sri Lanka, puts the number at 34, a figure the government questions.

Holmes' visit coincided with the anniversary of the discovery of the massacre of 17 local staff of Paris-based aid agency Action Contre la Faim, which Nordic truce monitors have blamed on state security forces.

The government's peace secretariat has blamed the aid group, accusing it of negligence and irresponsibility.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government denies security forces have been involved in rights abuses and says a presidential commission is probing the allegations.

The government has also rejected calls for a United Nations rights monitoring mission.

Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Sri Lanka since 1983 -- around 4,500 in the last year alone.