Sri Lanka cabinet meets in former rebel-held area

President Mahinda Rajapaksa is escorted by the military to the cabinet meeting President Rajapaksa was in Kilinochchi for the meeting

The Sri Lankan cabinet has held a special meeting in Kilinochchi, the former capital of the defeated Tamil Tigers in the far north of the island.

The town was the guerrillas' stronghold for 11 years until January 2009.

The BBC's Charles Haviland in Colombo says that by assembling there, the government was making a clear statement of its role in reunifying the island.

Our correspondent says during the meeting ministers agreed to lower the price of diesel in the north.

Strategic base

"The meeting started at 10am and ended at 12.30pm," enterprise minister Douglas Devananda told BBC Tamil.

"It was a routine cabinet meeting in which we discussed developments in the Northern Province."

President Rajapaksa called for people in the north to sink their political differences and rebuild the region.

He told public servants in Kilinochchi that local lives must be rebuilt, saying that the authorities were resettling displaced Tamil civilians in their homes with "unparalleled speed".

He told the civil servants that "working for the people is similar to working for God" and that they must strive to ensure "the entire Northern Province is transformed into a conducive environment to live and work".

"The people who come to you are those who have gone through immense difficulties. You are their only consolation," he said.

For years during their separatist war and long after losing Jaffna further north, the Tamil Tigers held Kilinochchi.

President Rajapaksa chaired the meeting The meeting was the first in decades to be held by the government in the north

It served as their command centre with the trappings of a state-within-a-state - including law courts, administrative offices, a tax system and a bank.

Eighteen months ago it fell to the Sri Lankan army, who established a strategic base inside the buildings used earlier by their enemies.

Our correspondent says that the cabinet meeting was a potent symbol of the government's achievement in vanquishing the Tigers and reunifying an island divided for so long.

But government critics say it must now do more to heal the island's ethnic divisions, which are still raw - especially in the north and east.

Some opposition MPs have condemned the Kilinochchi cabinet meeting as a waste of money, with one saying he expected hundreds of luxury vehicles to converge on the town.

A prominent moderate Tamil politician, V Anandasangaree, said he felt that that constant government visits were "irritating" local people still in shock after the war or searching for missing family members.

Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said constructive criticism was welcome, but ministry officials were available to solve people's problems and the meeting was money well spent.

Chaired by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the cabinet reviewed the progress of reconstruction in the former war zone, where people are only gradually returning to their homes.

A massive war memorial has recently been built in Kilinochchi. Recent visitors there say other construction work is proceeding slowly, hampered by the density of landmines in the area.

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