Sri Lanka's housing minister has started a hunger strike in front of the UN office after the world body refused to halt its investigation into alleged human rights abuses during the country's civil war. Buddhist monks chanted blessings and about 100 national flag-waving supporters cheered as the housing minister, Wimal Weerawansa, climbed onto a stage and proclaimed he decided to fast to stop what opponents believe would be an unfair prosecution of Sri Lankan armed forces and political leaders for war crimes.
Human rights groups have accused government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels of deliberately targeting civilians last year as fighting drew a close in the 25-year war. According to the UN more than 7,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed in the last five months of the fighting. The organisation's secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, appointed a three-member panel last month to advise him on accountability for the alleged atrocities.
Mr Weerawansa told the gathering: "I will fast until the UN panel is dissolved and Ban Ki-moon gives an assurance that he will no longer act acrimoniously against Sri Lanka. "I am prepared to die fasting. Even if I die there are more patriots ready to carry forward this struggle." Mr Weerawansa, who leads the ultranationalist National Freedom Front, an ally of the president Mahinda Rajapaksa's government, also called on Sri Lankans to launch countrywide protests and asked friendly nations to stop the UN initiative.
Mr Weerawansa led hundreds of protesters on Tuesday and trapped UN employees inside their office but all of them were freed after the country's foreign secretary intervened. A smaller sit-in on Wednesday had ended by today, and UN employees were working in the building or from home. The UN has refused to accede to Mr Weerawansa's demand. A UN spokesman said at the organisation's headquarters in New York on Wednesday: "The panel has been created and they will go about their work, so that's clear." *AP