COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka's opposition presidential candidate vowed Friday not to support any international prosecution of incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa for alleged war crimes.
Former Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena announced his candidacy last week after leading a revolt in Rajapaksa's government. The main opposition United National Party has pledged to support him in the Jan. 8 election.
Sirisena said if he is elected he will not let Rajapaksa or any of his relatives or members of the military be taken before a war crimes tribunal.
"I must say clearly that I will protect them all," he said Friday.
The U.N. Human Rights Council is investigating whether war crimes were committed in the final stage of the country's 25-year civil war in 2009. Rights groups and foreign governments have accused the government of failing to properly investigate the allegations of war-time abuses.
One of Rajapaksa's brothers is a powerful defense secretary who played a major role in counterinsurgency programs, while another is a Cabinet minister who reportedly negotiated the surrender of top rebel leaders who were later found killed.
The deadline for accepting evidence in the U.N. investigation was last month, but Rajapaksa's government refused to cooperate and did not allow investigators to visit the island nation.
Sri Lanka's civil war ended when government troops defeated Tamil Tiger rebels who were fighting to create a separate state for ethnic minority Tamils.
An earlier U.N. report said up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians may have been killed in the last months of the civil war, and accused both sides of serious human rights violations. It said the government was suspected of deliberately shelling civilians and hospitals and blocking food and medicine for civilians trapped in the war zone. The rebels were accused of recruiting child soldiers and holding civilians as human shields and firing from among them.
Both Rajapaksa and Sirisena are members of the majority Sinhalese population.
Sirisena had been the No. 2 official in the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the largest party in the ruling coalition. But he accused Rajapaksa of abusing the presidential powers, taking the country toward autocracy, and corruption and nepotism.
The revolt is the biggest challenge to Rajapaksa since he was first elected in 2005. He was re-elected five years later on a wave of popularity for defeating the Tamil rebels. With overwhelming strength in Parliament he changed the constitution to scrap a two-term limit and expand presidential powers, allowing him to fill the judiciary and other offices with his appointees. Sirisena has promised to reduce the strength of the president and give more powers to Parliament.