9:50 PM

"Ban ki Moon" visits Menik farm camp

UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon on Saturday witnessed at first hand the conditions of tens of thousands of displaced Tamil civilians in northern Sri Lanka as he appealed to a triumphant government to ''heal the wounds'' left by three decades of ethnic conflict.


The Secretary General visited the camps in Vavuniya district on Saturday where more than 300,000 people are staying after escaping from the battle lines between government forces and Tamil Tigers.

Ban said his top priority would be to gain "unfettered access" for UN agencies and humanitarian workers saying the displaced persons were "badly in need of" humanitarian assistance.

The UN Secretary General is the first international figure to visit the Manik farm camp, which is now home to thousands of refugees who fled the war zone, after Colombo declared total victory over the rebels.

Tamil activists and groups have likened the barbed wire enclosed "welfare villages" to "concentration camps". They say that conditions are "unhygienic and unlivable" in the camps where there is threat of outbreak of diseases.

For the first time, the Sri Lankan government allowed access to journalists travelling with Ban to visit the camps. The area as well as the nearby battle zones have been off limits to journalists, aid workers and others.

The journalists will also be allowed to fly over the battle zone in helicopters along with the UN Secretary General.

After his tour of the relief camps and the battle zone, the UN Secretary General will meet President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo.

Ban went round the camps where people are crammed in hundreds of tents in rows with hardly any space to move around with soldiers stationed all round the camp.

Some of the camp residents who have hardly any means to maintain privacy still held welcome signs for the UN chief.

After the visit, Ban said UN would seek the reunification of families broken by the war and reintegrate the society. "I want to help reconcile Sri Lanka and its people."

"Now that the long decades of conflict are over, it is time for Sri Lankans to heal the wounds and unite without regards to ethnic and religious identity," the Secretary General said on his arrival at the airport.

After early morning talks in Colombo with Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, Ban flew to the northern town of Cheddikkulman. He will then proceed to the central town of Kandy to meet with President Rajapaksa before heading back later this evening.

In his meeting with Rajapaksa, Ban is expected to press full and fear integration of the islands Tamil minority in a process of "national reconciliation" a demand already made by India.

His visit comes hours after the President brushed aside attempts to haul him and his government before war crimes tribunals for the manner in which the war was fought against Tamil Tiger rebels.

The president said he was not afraid of those attempts.