By Ranga Sirilal
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's former army chief walked free from jail on Monday with a pardon from President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who appears to have bowed to growing international demands that he release his highest-profile rival.
Ex-General Sarath Fonseka kissed his hands and raised them to a group of 2,000 supporters who cheered "Victory to our war hero! Victory to our leader!" and lit firecrackers outside the maximum security prison. Some waved the national flag, emblazoned with a lion and a sword, as he released a white dove symbolizing peace.
Regarded by many as a hero for helping end Sri Lanka's 25-year civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels, Fonseka fell out with the government and was imprisoned after a failed presidential bid against former ally Rajapaksa two years ago.
Arrested by soldiers who had been under his own command, Fonseka was stripped of his rank as a four-star general.
He trailed Rajapaksa by 17 points in the last presidential election and with the next one not due until 2016, he is not seen as an immediate political threat. His health has deteriorated in prison, increasing pressure on Rajapaksa to free him.
The United States considered him a political prisoner and repeatedly called for his release, along with demands on Rajapaksa to do more towards reconciliation with the losing side in the aftermath of the war.
At a meeting in Washington on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Sri Lanka's foreign minister to address human rights issues and respect press freedoms.
"The general is free because of international pressure from human rights groups and other countries. He was a political prisoner and should have been set free long ago," said supporter Athula Dhabare outside Welikada Prison. "He is the true leader who liberated this country from 30 years of war."
Rajapaksa has until now defied U.N. and U.S. criticism of his record, but local analysts say Fonseka's release is partly aimed at distracting attention from complaints about poor economic management.
Last week, news of Fonseka's impending liberation was welcomed by investors who hoped it would improve Sri Lanka's international image and prompt more foreign inflows.
Sri Lanka lost duty-free export privileges for thousands of products from the European Union after failing to implement three humans rights conventions.
Fonseka and the president's brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, led the army to victory in the final stages of the war, but they fell out in peacetime. The general complained he was sidelined by the president, who grew concerned Fonseka was plotting a coup.
Rights groups say both Fonseka and the president are implicated in shooting Tamil fighters as they sought to surrender. In recent months, rights workers and journalists have been targeted by a government media campaign against "traitors" it says helped the defeated guerrillas.
(Additional reporting by Shihar Azeez; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by John Chalmers and Nick Macfie)