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Sri Lanka's Rajapaksa denies abuses ahead of Commonwealth summit

Sri Lanka’s president has lashed out at criticism of his nation's human rights record. Mahinda Rajapaksa was speaking ahead of a summit he will host on Friday for the 53 Commonwealth nations of British colonial origin.

Critics accuse the Commonwealth of denying its democratic values by holding this year's three-day summit in Sri Lanka's seaside capital, Colombo. The summit host generally chairs the Commonwealth for two years until the next meeting.

"We are open," said Rajapaksa, who has refused international demands for an independent investigation into alleged atrocities committed by both rebels and soldiers until 2009 when Sri Lanka's military crushed a lengthy Tamil separatist uprising in the north of the Indian Ocean nation.

"We have nothing to hide," said Rajapaksa, now 67 and president since 2005. He added that "if there is any violations, we will take actions against anybody, anybody - I am ready to do that."

Friday's summit opening is to be boycotted by the leaders of Canada, India and Mauritius.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he would attend the gathering but promised to challenge Rajapaksa with "tough conversations" and a visit to the Tamil north.

Ethnic Tamils make up about 12 percent of Sri Lanka's 20 million population.

Pro-government protesters

On Tuesday, pro-government protesters blocked a British television crew from traveling by train north toward Tamil territory.

On Thursday, a court banned protests in Colombo. A police official said the move would ease traffic.

'Commonwealth in action'

Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma defended the bloc's decision to hold the summit in Colombo, saying it would give Sri Lanka more international contact.

"It shows the Commonwealth in action," Sharma said.

Last month, Gambia withdrew from the Commonwealth after continued criticsm over its human rights abuses.

In the Maldives a contested election has also drawn critical reactions from fellow Commonwealth members.

Postwar problems

A UN panel found in 2011 that the government's offensive as the war ended may have claimed as many as 40,000 civilian lives.

The panel found that both sides committed atrocities in the conflict, in which more than 100,000 people died over 27 years, deaths were mostly due to Sri Lankan military shelling.

Colombo denied that its troops killed civilians. Since the war ended in 2009, the government also denies committing rights abuses.

Calls for independent probe

Rights groups and UN bodies have urged Rajapaksa to allow an independent investigation into the final phase of the conflict, which pitted ethnic Tamils against the majority-Sinhalese government.

Rajapaksa has instead accused journalists of fabricating allegations of atrocities, and rejected criticism of nepotism, even though he and his three brothers control five cabinet ministries and the president's coalition dominates parliament.

"People were getting killed for 30 years," Rajapaksa said. "At least after 2009 we have stopped it."

Troops maintain a heavy presence throughout the north, and local journalists still regularly report harassment.

In September provincial elections, the Tamil National Alliance won a large majority in Jaffna, but any increased autonomy, according to observers, seems more symbolic than substantial.

mkg/ipj (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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