DAVID Cameron has been mobbed by protesters, including dozens of grieving women brandishing images of missing loved ones, during a visit to war-scarred Sri Lanka.
Up to 200 people surrounded the Prime Minister’s motorcade as he became the first world leader to visit the northern part of the country. Many tried to show him letters and petitions, as he was besieged by displaced villagers who claim to be victims of persecution.
He has been heavily criticised for visiting the country, whose president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, stands accused of human rights abuses.
After speaking to a number of locals and officials, Mr Cameron called for an investigation into alleged war crimes.
He later held a tense meeting with the Mr Rajapaksa and urged him to show “generosity and magnanimity” to the Tamil minority, who suffered during his country’s 26-year civil war.
The regime allegedly slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians in the conflict that ended in 2009.
Mr Cameron is the first world leader to travel to the north since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948.
He is embroiled in a row over his decision to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) on the island. Leaders from Canada, India and Mauritania chose to stay away in protest over Sri Lanka’s human rights record. An estimated 40,000 people died in the final months of the regime’s 26-year fight with Tamil Tiger separatists, according to the United Nations.
But Mr Rajapaksa insisted he had “nothing to hide”.
Downing Street said Mr Cameron “pressed his points very directly and robustly” in an hour-long face-to-face meeting with Mr Rajapaksa.
He met the president towards the end of a day when he heard about murdered journalists and spoke to displaced Tamils who have spent more than 20 years in a “temporary” camp.
Earlier, there were chaotic scenes in Jaffna, the provincial capital of the Tamil-dominated north, as Mr Cameron visited. Protesters descended on him, and at least two women got close to his car windows. They were thrown aside by police.
Mr Cameron said the “powerful” scenes in Jaffna reinforced his commitment to seek a full inquiry into alleged war crimes by regime forces. He added he would be pressing Mr Rajapaksa to promote reconciliation.
The president, who denies claims of war crimes and ongoing abuses, is believed to have hit back and accused Mr Cameron of seeking votes from the UK’s large Tamil community.
He also defended the bloody end to the civil war in his address at the Chogm opening ceremony, telling dignitaries: “In ending terrorism in 2009 we asserted the greatest human right, the right to life.”
Mr Rajapaksa rejects claims his forces indiscriminately shelled Tamils fleeing the fighting that saw the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009. He also denies allegations of battlefield executions and rapes.
Abuses are reported to continue, with claims of torture, abductions and intimidation of the media and judiciary, leading the UN’s human rights chief to warn the country was becoming increasingly authoritarian.
Reconciliation efforts have included regional elections in the north and a commission to investigate historic “disappearances”, but Mr Cameron has said they do not go anywhere near far enough.
The Prime Minister met and shook hands with Mr Rajapaksa at the formal opening of Chogm, which is also being attended by the Prince of Wales on behalf of the Queen. But he left soon afterwards, taking a small aircraft to Jaffna, on a visit that he says he made a condition of his attendance at the event.
He went to the city’s library, an important location for Tamils after it was burned by a mob of the island’s majority Sinhalese in 1981, amid inter-ethnic tensions that led to the civil war.
He then met the chief minister of the northern province, CV Vigneswaran of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), who urged the Prime Minister to tell Mr Rajapaksa they wanted to move to reconciliation “in a peaceful manner”, and the TNA national leader, MP Rajavrothian Sampanthan.
At the offices of the Uthayan newspaper, Mr Cameron heard about murders, attacks and intimidation of the paper and its staff, not only during the civil war but more recently.
He was shown pictures of victims on the walls and bullet holes from one of many armed attacks on the premises. The editor has lived in the building for six years, only ever venturing out for medical treatment, as he fears for his life following a previous assassination attempt.
Sri Lanka ranks near the foot of global tables for press freedom – one national editor has been murdered and many others attacked and beaten.
Mr Cameron also visited Sabapathopillaia, which is described by the Sri Lankan authorities as a “welfare village” for civilians displaced by the civil war, but which he said was effectively a refugee camp for Tamils.
Mr Cameron said the regime “still has a chance” to take action on human rights that will satisfy the international community.
He added: “I think coming here, listening to these people, hearing these arguments, helps to draw attention to their plight. I think the spotlight has been shone on Sri Lanka and people can see the good and the bad.”
But shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander accused Mr Cameron of “blundering badly” and of not having done enough to tackle Sri Lankan human rights abuses.
He said: “For months, Labour has called for a full and independent UN-led international investigation into the alleged crimes against humanity that took place during Sri Lanka’s two decades of civil war.
“The harrowing scenes we are seeing today serve to emphasise the widespread concern that human rights organisations have consistently raised about the reported war crimes and atrocities committed at the end of the civil war and the regime’s reluctance to fully investigate them.”
Background: Decades of bloody conflict left up to 100,000 dead
Sri Lanka is still scarred by the bitter legacy of 26 years of a vicious civil war, which had its origins in ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese, who account for the majority of the island’s population, and the Tamil minority, who are largely based in the north-east of the country.
Between 80,000 and 100,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the conflict, which erupted in 1980s.
After Sri Lanka won its independence from the UK in 1948, there was a growth of Sinhala nationalism – a movement that enhanced division. Violence finally erupted against the Tamils, who favoured self-rule. Air raids, roadside blasts, suicide bombings and land and sea battles all characterised a war that saw the rise of the Tamil Tigers, a fearsome guerrilla militia.
War erupted in 1983 and ended only when government forces had conquered all rebel-held territory.
Most of the violence was in the north of the island. But the conflict also penetrated the heart of Sri Lankan society, with Tamil Tiger rebels carrying out devastating suicide bombings in the capital, Colombo, in the 1990s.
In addition to the enormous human cost, the Sri Lankan economy was damaged by the war, which had a devastating effect on the tourism industry.
A long and tortuous peace process that saw many false dawns failed to dampen the violence, despite the signing of ceasefires and moves to decommission weapons at the beginning of the millennium. The violence continued after the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa as president in 2005.
The Tamil Tigers were finally defeated in May 2009 and the organisation promised to lay down its arms.
International concern was raised about the fate of civilians caught up in the conflict zone during the final stages of the war, the confinement of some 250,000 Tamil refugees in camps for months afterwards and allegations that the government had ordered the execution of captured or surrendering rebels.
A United Nations report in 2011 said both sides in the conflict had committed war crimes against civilians.
The Sri Lankan government rejected this and later reports as biased.
In September 2013, the main Tamil opposition party won a convincing victory in elections to a devolved provincial council in the north, which was set up after constitutional talks with the government. Commonwealth observers reported army intimidation of voters.
Profile: National hero or brutal despot? It all depends who you ask
It is an understatement to say Mahinda Rajapaksa is a politician who divides opinion.
To many of the Sinhalese people, he is to be admired for winning the war against Tamil Tiger rebels.
But to human rights campaigners and those in the minority Tamil community, he is a brutal despot whose term of office has been dogged by serious human rights abuses.
While the president and his supporters argue that he had to act firmly and decisively to defeat one of the world’s most dangerous terror groups, critics say he presided over the indiscriminate shelling of civilians at the end of the war and has done little or nothing to stop allegations of rape and torture of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan security forces in the four years since it concluded.
Furthermore, it is alleged that, since 2009, he has made no real effort to seriously engage with the Tamil community – who make up about 10 to 15 per cent of the population – instead ordering a wave of repression directed at those who question his authority or that of his government.
It is believed as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed and a further 70,000 left unaccounted for as a result of the Sri Lankan military assault on the country’s Tamil strongholds.
In the wake of the repression, international observers have accused Mr Rajapaksa of effectively presiding over a catalogue of war crimes. However, he has consistently contested the figures, rejected the charges and resisted repeated calls for independent inquiries.
Certainly, the propaganda that followed the government’s victory framed him as folk hero.
A former lawyer and a Buddhist, he comes from a political family – his father, DA Rajapaksa, represented the same region of Hambantota from 1947 to 1965.
Now aged 68, Mr Rajapaksa jnr became the country’s youngest ever parliamentarian in 1970 at the age of 24.
He went on to become leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, prime minister in 2004 and president in 2005.
When Mr Rajapaksa became prime minister, he was seen as someone who favoured a negotiated settlement with the Tamil Tigers. But after signing a deal with two nationalist parties, his stance became increasingly hard-line.
He launched his campaign for the presidency by rejecting the rebels’ demands for Tamil autonomy.
After four years of bitter fighting, he hailed the rebels’ defeat as vindication of his tough and uncompromising stance against them.