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U.S. says Sri Lanka refuses visa for official after war crime accusations

Nisha Desai Biswal, U.S. assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, gestures during a news conference in Colombo February 1, 2
Nisha Desai Biswal, U.S. assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, gestures during a news conference in Colombo February 1, 2

By Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka has refused a visa request for a U.S. State Department official, the U.S. Embassy said on Tuesday, after Washington signaled it would propose a U.N. resolution against the South Asian state over alleged war crimes.

However, Sri Lanka's External Affairs Ministry said the embassy's statement "was not a correct representation of the facts", adding the dates for the proposed trip had not been convenient.

Tensions rose after U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal voiced frustration on Saturday over Sri Lanka's failure to punish military personnel responsible linked to reported atrocities in a civil war that the Colombo government won in 2009 against separatist Tamil rebels.

Biswal, speaking after a two-day visit to Colombo, said Washington would put forward a third U.N. human rights resolution against Sri Lanka in March to address the allegations because its rights climate has been worsening.

The U.S. Embassy said the Sri Lankan government had turned down a visa application for Catherine Russell, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women's issues, and it called the decision "regrettable".

Russell had been scheduled to visit Sri Lanka in line with her mandate to promote stability, peace, and development by empowering women politically, socially and economically.

"The United States will continue to raise important issues related to gender-based violence, the impact that the conflict had on families (particularly female-headed households), the need for greater economic empowerment by women, and for greater political participation by women across Sri Lanka," the embassy said in an emailed statement.

"HUMAN SHIELDS"

Biswal said that during her visit people in Sri Lanka's former northern war zone referred to a range of human rights abuses including the disappearance of civilians.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government, which finally crushed the rebellion of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) 26 years after it erupted, has rejected calls for an international inquiry, saying this would be aimed only at pleasing a large Tamil diaspora living in Western countries.

Senior U.S. officials declined to say what would be in the planned resolution, but embassy officials said it might repeat the call for an international investigation in Sri Lanka.

The External Affairs Ministry on Wednesday said the relevant U.S. authorities were advised by the ministry that the dates proposed for the visit were not convenient.

"Rescheduling of a visit does not amount to refusal of a visa. The position was fully and clearly explained to the U.S. Embassy," the ministry said in a statement.

Sri Lanka has rejected U.S. criticism of its human rights record as "grossly disproportionate".

A U.N. panel has assessed that around 40,000 mainly Tamil civilians died in the final few months of the war. Both sides committed atrocities, but army shelling killed most victims, it concluded.

Rajapaksa, speaking at Independence Day celebrations on Tuesday, said unidentified foreigners were trying to use "northern people", a reference to ethnic Tamils, as "human shields".

"The invaders always came to our country shedding oceans of crocodile tears. They interfered ... putting forward claims to protect human rights, establish democracy and the rule of law," he said.

(Writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alison Williams)

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