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PM: Sri Lanka rights talks 'frank'

David Cameron has clashed with the president of Sri Lanka as he pushed for action to protect the rights of its minority Tamil community after a dramatic visit to the civil war-scarred north of the island.

Downing Street said the Prime Minister "pressed his points very directly and robustly" in an hour-long face-to-face meeting with Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Mr Cameron was fired up after hearing about murdered journalists and speaking to displaced Tamils who have spent more than 20 years in a temporary camp - and finding himself at the centre of a protest.

Up to 200 demonstrators brandishing photographs of missing relatives gathered around the PM's motorcade as he made the first visit to the Tamil-dominated region by any foreign leader for more than 60 years.

He said the "powerful" scenes he witnessed in the city of Jaffna reinforced his commitment to seek a full inquiry of alleged war crimes by regime forces and to pressing Mr Rajapaksa to promote reconciliation.

But the president - who denies claims of war crimes and ongoing abuses - is believed to have hit back and accused Mr Cameron of seeking votes from the UK's large Tamil community.

Mr Cameron has come under fire from campaigners for not joining the leaders of Canada, India and Mauritius in boycotting the summit in protest over human rights.

But he insisted that his visit justified his judgment that he could achieve more by attending and using the occasion to highlight issues and raise them directly.

As many as 40,000 civilians are estimated to have died in the final months of the regime's 26-year fight with Tamil Tiger separatists in 2009, according to the UN, whose call for an international investigation if no new inquiry is held are backed by Mr Cameron.

During his visit to Jaffna, he heard of ongoing issues and was particularly struck when he visited a Tamil newspaper office to hear about the murder and assaults of its staff and see bullet holes in the walls from attacks.

He was told that as recently as this year, armed raiders had burned down the presses of Uthayan in an unsuccessful bid to silence the title.

Speaking after visiting the makeshift homes of people still living in a "welfare village" after two decades, he urged the regime to win the peace as well as the war.

Citing Churchill's maxim of "in peace, magnanimity" he said Mr Rajapaksa should show "generosity" towards the Tamils and act to secure a peaceful co-existence.

Reconciliation efforts have included regional elections in the north - and Mr Cameron said he was impressed by the region's new Tamil chief minister - but far more needed to be done, he suggested.

"Seeing pictures of journalists, shot and killed, on the walls and hearing stories of journalists who have disappeared long after the war has ended, that will stay with me," he said "And also the image, in this camp, of talking to a young woman who came here when she was very young - a child in this camp - and wants nothing more than to go to her own home."

The Rajapaksa regime "still has a chance" to take action over human rights that will satisfy the international community, he suggested - saying he would push the case at international gatherings.

"The fact is about this country that there is a chance of success because the war is over, the terrorism has finished, the fighting is done," said the PM.

"Now the fighting is over and the war is over, what's needed is generosity, magnanimity, proper devolution of power. The Tamils and Sinhalese can live in peace on this island."

The lengthy talks meant Mr Cameron arrived late to a dinner hosted by the Prince of Wales - who is representing the Queen as head of the Commonwealth at the summit - saying it had been a "frank" meeting. Standing with Mr Rajapaksa and Commonwealth secretary-general Kamalesh Sharma, he was heard to say that the discussions had been "lively".

"It's good to have these frank meetings."

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said: "Tragically, the Prime Minister has blundered badly on Sri Lanka, and has found himself unprepared for the growing controversy surrounding the reluctance of president Rajapaksa to alter his approach to the human rights of his own citizens.

"For months Labour has called for a full and independent UN-led international investigation into the alleged crimes against humanity that took place during Sri Lanka's two decades of civil war.

"The harrowing scenes we are seeing today serve to emphasise the widespread concern that human rights organisations have consistently raised about the reported war crimes and atrocities committed at the end of the civil war in 2009, and the regime's reluctance to fully investigate them.

"David Cameron must now yield to the long-standing calls from Labour and others for an international investigation into these alleged crimes. If he fails to then he risks missing another opportunity to influence the Sri Lankan authorities."

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