COLOMBO (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday the United States wants to renew ties with Sri Lanka and urged its new government to work with the United Nations to ensure an investigation into war crimes met international standards.
Kerry arrived in the South Asian island nation earlier on Saturday, the first time in a decade that a U.S. secretary of state has visited Sri Lanka.
He announced the start of an annual bilateral dialogue and said the United States would immediately send experts to advise the new government on economic growth, trade and investment.
Kerry’s visit comes after years of tensions between Washington and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa over allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes at the end of a long conflict with Tamil separatists, which ended in 2009.
Rajapaska was unseated by Mathripala Sirisena in a surprise election win in January.
Rajapaska’s government had also clashed with the United Nations over its investigation into war atrocities. At Sirisena’s request, the U.N. has agreed to delay its report until September.
In a speech to business leaders and activists, Kerry said it was important that the new government cooperate with the U.N. and mount an investigation seen as legitimate within Sri Lanka.
He said a process of reconciliation was needed to heal the wounds of more than two decades of war. He also urged the government to release all remaining political prisoners and work with international organisations to investigate missing persons cases.
“Sri Lanka is at a pivotal point. Peace has come but true reconciliation will take time,” Kerry said, “The United States is prepared to furnish whatever legal, whatever technical assistance, whatever help we can to support Sri Lanka.”
Kerry briefly met Sirisena and later Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He will meet with Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, who heads the main ethnic Tamil political party, on Sunday before going on to Kenya for his next stop.
During a news conference Kerry said the United States was not seeking to meddle in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.
“Everything we are talking about, we are offering, not demanding, everything we have suggested is exactly that, a suggestion,” he said.
Rakapaska had also established strong ties with China during his term.
Kerry did not mention China by name but said he had reiterated during his meeting on Saturday that the United States was not asking Sri Lanka to align with any one country.
“The United States is not here to ask Sri Lanka to align with anyone, to refuse to have any other relationship,” he said.
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Raissa Kasolowsky