Sri Lankan Tamil party to back former general

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s main ethnic Tamil party said Wednesday it is throwing its support in the upcoming presidential election behind a former general who led the battle against the Tamil Tiger rebels and has been labeled by some as an ethnic Sinhalese nationalist.

The unlikely support by the Tamil National Alliance, which was formed with the backing of the of the now-defeated rebels, is a reflection of how far the party is willing to go to see President Mahinda Rajapaksa unseated in the Jan. 26 vote.

Former army chief Sarath Fonseka, the opposition candidate, and Rajapaksa worked closely to crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam last May. Both were accused of human rights violations, and a U.S. State Department report last October accused the military of actions that could be described as war crimes.

The former allies, however, have since become bitter political enemies, contesting an election that has become something of a referendum on which politician ethnic Tamils dislike the least.

Tamil National Alliance leader Rajavarothayam Sambanthan said his party could not back Rajapaksa because of the government’s human rights abuses and its inability to achieve reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities following the end of the country’s 25-year civil war.

“Mahinda Rajapaksa’s performance in the last four years is totally unacceptable; we can’t allow him to have another term,” Sambanthan said at a news conference.

Rajapaksa’s actions have been “detrimental to the preservation of the cultural and linguistic identity of the Tamil speaking people,” he said.

Sambanthan did not comment on Fonseka’s role in the alleged abuses or the fears among many in the mainly Hindu minority Tamil group that the former general is an ethnic nationalist seeking a Buddhist, Sinhalese state.

Sambanthan said his party talked with both candidates about issues important to ethnic Tamils, such as the resettlement of some 300,000 civilians displaced by the war, rehabilitation of war-torn areas and dismantling the so-called high security zones in Tamil areas where private land and homes have been occupied by security forces for decades.

“We found Sarath Fonseka’s response was more acceptable than what Mahinda Rajapaksa communicated to us,” he said.

Fonseka this week promised the Tamil National Alliance he would release hundreds of Tamil youth held on suspicion of rebel links and offer amnesty and rehabilitation to hardcore fighters. He also pledged to return army-occupied houses and land to their owners.