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US warned Sri Lanka against offensive on safe zones

Leaked US embassy cables reveal how then Ambassador Robert Blake warned Sri Lanka that mass civilian civilian deaths would ensue, if its military stormed the government-declared safe zone.

A March 2009  cable, detailing a meeting with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Bogollagama, said:

“Ambassador recalled continuing reports he has heard that the military intends to take the safe zone by force and told the Foreign Minister if the government did so thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, could be killed.

If such casualties occurred the government would be accused of war crimes and its actions would diminish Congressional and public support for future US assistance to Sri Lanka.”

Sri Lanka warned

Blake, now US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, went on to urge Sri Lanka to think “very very carefully” on the next steps to be taken after the military surrounded the government-declared safe zone.

Thereafter, Sri Lanka launched a massive air, sea and ground offensive, escalating the bombardment of civilians.

The following month, in another meeting with Bogollagama, Blake said that,

“comparisons are already being made to what transpired in Rwanda where the international community did not do enough to prevent a catastrophe.

Blake added that if they pursued the military option then Sri Lanka could expect “escalating international criticisms.”

“The Ambassador said such actions could include suspension of aid to Sri Lanka, closer scrutiny of IMF lending, possible war crimes investigations, and perhaps other actions.

Denials 'not credible'

When Bogollagama defended the Sri Lankan military's conduct and denied any shelling of the safe zone took place, Blake replied that

“such a claim was simply not credible, given multiple, credible, independent sources on the ground in the safe zone.”

Blake also referred to a phone call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to President Rajapakse, which stressed that the Sri Lankan Army should not be firing into the safe zone.

Medicine blockade

He also urged Sri Lanka to stop blocking medicine reaching the civilian population, noting that apart from a small shipment of basic supplies, no medicine had been allowed in for almost 6 weeks.

(Sri Lankan continued its blockade till the end of the war.)

The cable read:

“Ambassador recounted appalling stories [the embassy] has received of amputations and other operations done without anesthetics and stated, "frankly, it's unconscionable" that the Sri Lankan military was still preventing medicine from reaching civilians despite repeated assurances from Basil Rajapaksa that they would be let through.”

Rajapakse unrepentant, 'bewildered'

Blake ended the cable by concluding that President Rajapakse was disregarding the potential of any negative response to Sri lanka's military action.

"The President's genuine popularity among his Sinhalese voter base and his eagerness not to appear to be cowing to international pressure may be creating a situation in which he does not understand or refuses to believe the extent to which the international community will react in outrage if GSL troops enter the safe zone forcibly.

These thoughts were echoed by Blake's successor, Ambassador Butenis, who following an August 2009 meeting with the President wrote to Washington:

"President Rajapaksa expressed bewilderment and frustration at "President Rajapaksa expressed bewilderment and frustration at U.S. policy for encouraging him to fight terrorism and then criticizing him when he did."

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