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June 24, 2017

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Sri Lanka temple eyes peace amid fears of fighting

MATARA, Sri Lanka--At a temple in the heart of Sri Lanka's Sinhalese south, an unusual attempt at reconciliation is underway after decades of ethnic bloodshed, even as the government warns of fresh fighting.

Inside the white-washed temple, Hindu priests watch over meters-high statues of an estranged couple brought together to lift an age-old curse many blame for Sri Lanka's conflict that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

"The country will never go back to war," priest Mani Srinivasa told AFP of the new spiritual effort at the temple in Matara, mainly used by the minority Tamil community, who are predominantly Hindus.

The temple was destroyed during violence 30 years ago between ethnic majority Sinhalese, who are mostly Buddhists, and Tamils — but later rebuilt with the help of both communities.

"We know all this talk of unrest will fade away by the end of this year. It is written in the stars," Srinivasa said.

Five years after the separatist conflict ended, Sri Lanka is struggling with reconciliation amid international calls for an investigation into alleged war-time atrocities and claims rights abuses are still being committed.

Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapakse has resisted pressure for an international probe, and denies claims his troops killed 40,000 mainly Tamil civilians in the final months of the decades-long war.

He says he needs more time to heal the wounds of the conflict that finally ended when the mainly Sinhalese military crushed Tamil rebels fighting for a separate homeland for Tamils.

But signs of government-led reconciliation are few, and in April the defence ministry warned fresh attempts were under way to revive the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist group.

The warning came after the military said it shot dead three men during an operation against suspected Tamil rebels, in the first major confrontation since the end of the conflict in 2009.

No Return to War

Experts have rubbished the government's warning, saying there was absolutely no appetite within Sri Lanka or among the Tamil diaspora abroad for another armed struggle.

"By claiming that there is a serious threat of the LTTE re-emerging, the government completely undermines its own claim of normalcy in the (former war zone of the) northeast," former Sri Lankan diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka told AFP.

"This is schizophrenia manifesting itself as official government policy."

Others question the timing of the government's announcement, which came just weeks after the U.N.'s top rights body passed a resolution for a formal probe into Colombo's war record.

Western nations are pressing Colombo to lift draconian anti-insurgency laws that allow troops to hold suspects without charge for lengthy periods, and recall thousands of soldiers still patrolling former war zones.

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