Sri Lankan official warns diplomats, CNN, BBC

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka warned Western diplomats, foreign journalists and aid groups Sunday that they would be “chased” out of the country if they appear to favor the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa singled out the ambassadors of Switzerland and Germany, and television networks CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera in his criticism of foreigners, accusing them of being biased.

Rajapaksa said certain foreign media reports were damaging the security forces at a time they were “dealing the final death blow” to the Tigers.

His ire appears to stem from concern expressed by the international community that the government is not doing enough to extricate civilians trapped in the fighting between the military and the Tamil rebels in the north.

In an interview published in the independent Sunday Island newspaper, Rajapaksa said the three TV networks were sensationalizing civilian hardships by telecasting video clips from a Web site run by the rebels. The ambassadors were trying to create panic, he was quoted as saying.

“They will be chased away (if they try) to give a second wind” to the separatist Tamil Tigers, said Rajapaksa, who is the brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The government says the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as the rebels are formally known, are using civilians as human shields, a charge denied by the insurgents.

“It was irresponsible (of the foreign media) not to talk about civilians held in the war zone by the LTTE while making comments that only helped the Tigers,” Rajapaksa said.

Journalists and aid workers have been barred from going to the conflict zone.

Representatives of the news organizations and the diplomats could not be immediately reached for comment. Rajapaksa also was not available, and the president’s office said a statement would be issued later to clarify the comments.

The development comes amid rising criticism from international media rights groups of deteriorating press freedom in the country.

According to Amnesty International, at least 14 journalists and Sri Lankans working for the media have been killed since the beginning of 2006. Another 20 have fled the country after getting death threats, the London-based rights group said.

It says authorities do little to protect journalists or to prosecute those responsible for harming or killing them. The government denies the charge and says it does not target reporters. It has also rejected accusations that it arrests journalists critical of its policies and its war with ethnic Tamil rebels.

The Tigers have fought since 1983 for a separate Tamil homeland in the north and the east — a civil war that has left more than 70,000 people dead. The minority Tamils have long complained of marginalization by the governments of this Sinhalese-majority country.

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