COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Thousands of people joined government-backed protests across Sri Lanka on Monday against a proposed U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on alleged rights abuses during the country's civil war.
The protests coincided with the beginning of the council's four-week session in Geneva.
Cabinet ministers urged citizens to join the demonstrations, which were planned in 150 cities and towns, according the government's website.
A U.N. panel report earlier concluded there were credible allegations that both the government and the defeated Tamil Tiger rebels committed serious abuses that could amount to war crimes, especially during the last months of the conflict, which ended in May 2009.
The resolution urges Sri Lanka to investigate alleged abuses, but the government says it interferes in the country's internal affairs.
In Colombo, thousands of people, including Cabinet ministers, lawmakers and government supporters, marched across the capital, blocking traffic on main roads for hours.
They shouted slogans, waved national flags and displayed placards that read "Defeat Geneva conspiracy," ''Hands off Sri Lanka," ''Let's not lose victory achieved by heroic forces" and "Save Sri Lanka from UNHRC watchdog."
"People have gathered here to give a clear message that they are ready to safeguard this country from the vicious proposals and accusations of Western forces," said Power and Energy Minister Patali Ranawaka.
He said members of the armed forces sacrificed their lives to liberate the country and "it's now high time for us to be grateful to them. People of this country are ready to protect the country's independence, freedom and territorial integrity."
Government minister Mervyn Silva warned that Westerners would "learn a good lesson in Sri Lanka if they try to do the same thing that they did to Iraq, Libya and Syria."
South Africa's retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Irish President Mary Robinson, members of The Elders, a group of global leaders working for peace and human rights, asked the human rights council "to support a resolution that seeks accountability for the terrible violations of international law that have taken place, and establishes mechanisms to monitor progress on the steps the government is taking on accountability."
Writing in Britain's Guardian newspaper on Monday the leaders also called on the council to establish an independent investigation if Sri Lanka does not make sufficient progress in creating a credible accountability process.
The head of Sri Lanka's delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Mahinda Samarsinghe, said his country needed time and space to conduct its own investigations, rejecting any suggestion of outside involvement in the effort to hold alleged war crimes perpetrators to account.
At the same time, Samarsinghe denounced claims that tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the final months of the civil war as false.
Outside the U.N.'s Geneva office, meanwhile, about 1,000 ethnic Tamil exiles from around Europe demonstrated in favor of an international panel to probe alleged war crimes during the conflict.
Earlier on Monday, about 3,000 government supporters marched toward the U.S. Embassy in Colombo but were halted by police. The United States supports the planned U.N. resolution.
Mahinda Kahandagamage, an organizer of the march, said they delivered a letter to the embassy condemning the U.S. support and asking that the resolution be withdrawn.
"The country has just been liberated from a (25-year) war. Our lives were in darkness," he said. "But now there is no fear of bomb blasts, no sound of gunfire. But now America is trying to bring a proposal against our country in Geneva. We all must get together to defeat that effort."
In Gampaha, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Colombo, hundreds of government lawmakers, politicians and supporters shouted slogans condemning the planned resolution.
The government's call for demonstrations came amid growing public anger over a sharp increase in the cost of living spurred by rising fuel prices. A week ago, police were accused of firing on fishermen protesting fuel price increases, killing one person and wounding three.
The U.S. representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, said last week that if Sri Lanka continues to resist the resolution, all options would remain on the table, including calling for an outside investigation.
The U.N. panel report, which was published in 2010, said tens of thousands of civilians may have been killed during the civil war and called for an independent international investigation.
Sri Lanka rejected an international investigation and appointed its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which cleared government troops of deliberately targeting civilians but proposed an inquiry into complaints of isolated violations. It also said the Tamil Tigers routinely violated international humanitarian laws.
Associated Press writer Frank Jordans contributed to this report from Geneva.