By THOMAS FULLER
Published: April 30, 2009
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — One of the highest-level European delegations to visit this war-torn country in years has failed to persuade the Sri Lankan government to declare a temporary truce with ethnic Tamil rebels.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka emphatically rejected the appeal Thursday and told Western governments to stop lecturing him, news agencies reported.
“The government is not ready to enter into any kind of cease-fire with the terrorists. It is my duty to protect the people of this country. I don’t need lectures from Western representatives,” he said in a speech distributed by his office and quoted by the news agencies.
“They’re not willing,” David Miliband, Britain’s foreign secretary, said in an interview after talks Wednesday with Mr. Rajapaksa and other officials. “The furthest the government has gone is to commit to no heavy weaponry and to minimize what they call collateral damage, mainly the damage to civilians.”
The Western delegation, which also included Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France, paid a one-day visit as intense fighting raged near tens of thousands of civilians who were being held as human shields by Tamil rebels.
Also on Thursday, The Associated Press reported that Balasingam Nadesan, a top Tamil Tiger leader, had ruled out a surrender. “Surrendering and laying down our arms are out of the question,” Mr. Nadesan was quoted as saying in an e-mail to The Associated Press from the combat zone.
Tamil groups say the government has broken its promise, made Monday, not to use heavy weaponry.
Mr. Kouchner, who has spent four decades in conflict zones and is a co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, said in an interview before his departure that he did not entirely trust the Sri Lankan government’s assurances.
“Do I believe them? No, not completely,” he said. But he said he discounted claims by the rebels even more.
Both foreign ministers will report their findings to the European Union and the United Nations Security Council.
Tensions have risen between Sri Lanka and foreign governments over the plight of the estimated 50,000 civilians captive in the combat zone.
As a reflection of those strains, the European delegation was without a third official, Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, who was denied permission to enter the country. Sweden recalled its top diplomat in the country over the episode. Sri Lanka now says Mr. Bildt is welcome to visit in May.
Reuters reported late Wednesday that the United States had decided to delay a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund bailout for Sri Lanka's central bank to pressure the government to do more to help trapped civilians.
Mr. Kouchner said he recognized the difficulty faced by the government, which believes it is close to winning its 25-year war against the Tamil Tigers. The government and its supporters say they fear that any lull in the fighting would allow the Tigers to regroup, as they have in the past.
"They told us: ''This is not Iraq, this is not Afghanistan. This is our internal fight,''" Mr. Kouchner said.
As he and Mr. Miliband toured refugee camps on Wednesday, Sri Lanka's Defense Ministry reported “hours of intense close-quarter fighting” between rebels and government troops.
The Sri Lankan Navy, meanwhile, said it had thwarted a sea-borne rebel attack, destroying what it described as four suicide boats. Rebel-controlled territory, which once covered nearly one-third of the country, has been reduced to three square miles, the military said Wednesday.
As a measure of the civilian casualties in the conflict, a field hospital that Mr. Kouchner visited received 60 patients on Wednesday alone.
Around 6,500 civilians have died since late January and twice that number have been wounded, according to the United Nations.
The European delegation is the latest of several high-profile visits in recent days centered on the plight of the civilians. Senior Indian officials and the United Nations humanitarian coordinator both failed to persuade the government to stop the fighting.
The United Nations and foreign governments have also tried but failed to persuade the Tamil Tigers to let the civilians go. It is unclear whether they would change their minds if the government agreed to a cease-fire.
Humanitarian conditions in the rebel-held zone and in the camps across northern Sri Lanka are dire, according to doctors, aid agencies and the United Nations.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees described “overcrowding, malnourishment, dehydration and limited medical facilities” at the refugee camps.