COLOMBO // Hundreds of protesters, led by a government minister, laid siege to the UN compound in Colombo today, refusing to let workers out in an effort to force the world body to cancel its investigation of alleged abuses committed during Sri Lanka's civil war. Police tried to break up the protest in the evening and escorted some of the trapped workers out of the compound, but quickly pulled back after the housing minister Wimal Weerawansa - who led the protest - ordered them to stop, leaving some UN staff trapped inside.
Later, four people left the building after the country's foreign secretary, who was apparently negotiating with the protesters, entered and left himself. Protesters said they were the last of the staff who had been stuck inside, but neither the foreign secretary Romesh Jayasinghe's office nor local police would confirm that. Calls to the local UN representative went unanswered. Wasantha Bandara, one of the protesters who accompanied Mr Jayasinghe into the UN building, said the protests would continue to sit outside the building but added that their intention was not to hold the staff hostage.
Between 125 and 200 people were trapped in the compound when the protesters first descended on the building, according to a UN official inside the building who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. Earlier the protesters had burned effigies of the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon to protest a panel he established to examine whether government forces committed atrocities against minority Tamils when the country's quarter-century civil war drew to a close last year. The government opposes the panel and has already said it will not issue visas to its members, led by the former Indonesian attorney general Marzuki Darusman. Human rights groups have accused the troops and Tamil rebels of deliberately targeting civilians and killing thousands of innocent people in the final months of the war. The accusations have infuriated top government officials and sparked earlier violent protests outside the Red Cross compound and the British High Commission in Colombo. As police looked on Tuesday, Weerawansa and a group of ultranationalist Buddhist monks led men waving national flags on a march to the UN office. The protesters initially tried to break into the compound, which sits inside a high security zone protected by checkpoints and soldiers, but failed to breach the high walls. Instead, they held a sit-in, blocking both exists, spray-painting the security camera at the gate - in an apparent bid not to be identified - and preventing employees working inside from leaving. Mr Weerawansa demanded the world body disband the three-member investigative team appointed last month. "Our armed forces have beaten terrorism in an exemplary manner. We will not allow our soldiers and political leaders to be taken before an international war tribunal," Mr Weerawansa said. "We ask Ban Ki-moon to withdraw this panel if he wants to get the workers and those inside the building out." Mr Weerawansa said the panel could lead to unfair prosecution of soldiers and political leaders who helped defeat the Tamil rebels after a long and bloody civil war. Government troops crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels last year, ending their 25-year campaign for an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils. According to the UN, more than 7,000 civilians were killed in the last five months of the fighting alone. Sri Lanka has faced growing international criticism of its wartime conduct. Rights groups have said they have photographic and video evidence of abuses and have called for war crimes investigations. Sri Lanka has denied targeting civilians and has appointed its own reconciliation commission, but that body is not expected to look into the war crimes allegations. * Associated Press