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Cameron shrugs off Murali comments

David Cameron insisted he had given a "fair reflection" of the need for improved human rights in Sri Lanka after cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan suggested he had been given a false picture of his country.

The spin bowling great suggested the Prime Minister had been "misled" about the latest situation in the war-scarred north of the island.

Mr Cameron is pressing the Sri Lankan regime to do more to improve conditions for the minority Tamil population still suffering the effects of a 26-year civil war which ended in 2009.

Yesterday he visited families still unable to return to their homes after spending 20 years in refugee camps, in the first visit by a foreign leader to the region since 1948.

In what he described as "frank" talks with president Mahinda Rajapaksa the PM said he would press for an international investigation of alleged war crimes if the regime failed to hold a credible one by March.

At a cricket ground in the capital Colombo, where he is attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Mr Cameron acquitted himself well when he pitted his batting skills against some "Murali" deliveries.

They were there to talk about the sportsman's initiative to bring together youngsters from Tamil and other communities through cricket as part of post-war reconciliation efforts.

But asked about the politician's calls for more action from the government of Mr Rajapaksa - which has been criticised internationally over human rights abuses - Muralitharan, a Tamil, said Mr Cameron was underestimating the improvements already made.

"I'm a sportsman and we don't think about politics," he told reporters.

"My opinion is, there were problems in the last 30 years in those areas. Nobody could move there. In wartime I went with the UN, I saw the place, how it was.

"Now I regularly go and I see the place and it is about a 1,000% improvement in facilities.

"Cricket is the main game to narrow the bridge between the people. But facilities-wise, schools are built, roads are built. Businesses are started. So many things have happened. It is improving.

"Thanks to the Sri Lankan army, they are putting a lot of effort there.

"This country is 20-odd million people. In the north there are only one million people. They are getting more attention than the south at the moment."

Asked about Mr Cameron's stance, Muralitharan said: "He must have been misled by other people.

"People speak without going and seeing the things there. I go on and off. I see from my eyes there is improvement.

"I can't say the Prime Minister is wrong or not. He's from England, he hasn't seen the site, he hasn't gone and visited these places - yesterday only.

"But other than that, the political side ... basically what we want is food, shelter, education, happiness in the family."

Mr Cameron said it was an "enormous pleasure" to meet the bowler - who took a record 800 Test wickets.

Asked about Muralitharan's comments at a press conference, the Prime Minister said: "I think he acknowledged that I was right to come and right to visit.

"Of course I was told all sorts of things yesterday in the north and there are very strong views in this country, strong differing views on some of the issues.

"I would say what matters is not everything I was told but what I myself have said, and I think I've given a fair reflection of some of the things that need to happen in terms of reconciliation, in terms of progress, in terms of human rights, free speech, and I think it's important to raise these issues."

Mr Cameron made clear he backed the March deadline for a new "credible, transparent and independent" war crimes probe set by UN human rights chief Navi PIllai to coincide with her next report on Sri Lanka.

She has warned the country is heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.

"If that investigation is not completed by March then I will use our position on the UN Human Rights Council to work with the UN Human Rights Commissioner and call for a full, credible and independent international inquiry," Mr Cameron told reporters.

He said he had urged Mr Rajapaksa to act to provide homes for refugees, end the intimidation and beating of journalists and work with newly elected Tamil regional leaders.

"I accept it takes time but what matters is being on the right pathway, getting on the right track," he said.

"It was a frank meeting. Of course not everything I said was accepted. But I sensed that they do want to make progress on these issues and it will help, frankly, by having international pressure."

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.

"Britain has shown that we will stand up for our values and do all we can to advance them, Of course, you can only do that by being here."

Mr Cameron had another short meeting before leaving the summit with Mr Rajapaksa at the request of the Sri Lankan leader - which he hailed as a sign that progress could be made.

"We discussed more of the issues we discussed yesterday," he said.

"I think that demonstrates really two things: first of all you can have frank and clear conversations but an ongoing dialogue.

"Secondly these issues are not solved by one visit, this is not a flash in the pan, it's a dialogue, a conversation, pressure that we need to keep up over the longer term and I'm committed to doing that."

He was speaking as he arrived in Dubai to press the case for British firms seeking orders for aircraft at its airshow, which starts tomorrow.

The Government is optimistic of securing a deal with the United Arab Emirates to buy Eurofighter Typhoon military aircraft over a French rival.

Staff preparing stalls at the exhibition were given a pep talk by the Prime Minister, who also chatted with Red Arrows pilots.

The PM also boasted on Twitter about his feat of surviving an over from Muralitharan with his wicket intact - though he admitted the Sri Lankan star "went easy" on him.

While he played and missed on a couple of occasions and was forced to defend at least one ball, Mr Cameron struck two of the deliveries well, at one point dispatching Muralitharan back over his head.


From Belfast Telegraph