August 20, 2009 / 2:05 PM / 10 years ago

Sri Lanka army to speed demining, scale back expansion

By C. Bryson Hull

COLOMBO, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s new army commander on Thursday said he is planning a much smaller increase in the size of the post-war army, and wants to more than double its demining capacity to speed up refugee resettlement.

Lt-Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya took over as army commander in July, succeeding General Sarath Fonseka, who led the campaign that crushed the Tamil Tiger separatists and brought a decisive end in May to one of Asia’s longest-running civil wars.

Fonseka’s calls to add 100,000 troops after the war perturbed Western diplomats who wanted Sri Lanka to prioritise post-war redevelopment and not further militarisation, especially as it was seeking an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan at that time.

"A little increase may be required. An increase of police or Special Task Force (police paramilitaries) would be much more beneficial," Jayasuriya said at his first press conference since taking over in July. "I think 20,000-50,000 would be fine."

Parliament has authorized adding 50,000 soldiers but Jayasuriya said it would take time.

"I think the government does not want to increase the budget, he said. "To hold and consolidate what we captured, you need more troops than you do to fight."

Since the Tigers controlled northern Sri Lanka as a de facto state for nearly 25 years, the government will have to build new bases to house troops who will secure the area and ensure no insurgency takes root again, he added.

Nearly 280,000 Tamils who fled the final battles of the war are now in refugee camps beset by rain and flooding. Rights groups say the camps are inadequate and that people are being held improperly in the military-guarded facilities.

Jayasuriya said his main priority was speeding up demining efforts across 8,000 sq km (3,100 sq mile) so people could be resettled as soon as possible. He declined to give a timeframe.

"I want to take engineering battalions that were in an infantry role to do demining," Jayasuriya said. Right now there are 300 soldiers working with four non-governmental organisations to clear the mines.

Jayasuriya has sent 400 more for training and is aiming to purchase demining machinery. The government says the people must be held in the camps until the mines are cleared and all potential Tiger sympathisers are properly screened. (Editing by Alex Richardson)

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