Sri Lankan Tamil leaders tell visiting US official government slow to release prisoners, land

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Ethnic Tamil leaders told a visiting U.S. diplomat on Tuesday that Sri Lanka's new government is not moving fast enough to free prisoners detained without trial and return private land seized by the military during a decades-long civil war.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal met with Tamil National Alliance leaders as part of her two-day visit to Sri Lanka.

Lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran said the party had hoped the government would release some prisoners before the country's independence day on Wednesday and would quickly hand back land to its owners.

The surprise election victory of President Maithripala Sirisena last month and his government's early steps to end repression have stirred hopes in Washington that Sri Lanka and the U.S. can revive strained ties.

After meeting with Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera on Monday, Biswal said Sri Lanka could count on the U.S. "to be a partner and a friend in the way forward." Samaraweera is scheduled to visit Washington next week.

Sirisena's government has promised to take steps to achieve reconciliation between minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese.

"We see some lethargy, some delay," Sumanthiran told The Associated Press. "We told the U.S. to encourage the government to (move) fairly quickly."

Sumanthiran also said his party discussed power sharing as a political solution to the long ethnic conflict on the island.

Tamil leaders have accused the government of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa of reneging on its promise to offer a degree of self-rule after the civil war.

There was no immediate comment from the U.S. side. The U.S. Embassy said it would release a statement on Wednesday.

U.S.-Sri Lanka relations were strained over Rajapaksa's reluctance to investigate thousands of reported civilian deaths in the final months of the conflict in 2009, when government forces crushed Tamil rebels who had been fighting for an ethnic homeland.

A United Nations report said earlier up to 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the last months. Accurate estimates of the number of deaths in the 26-year war are not available.

The U.S. sponsored a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council last year calling for an investigation into war crimes allegations, and a report from the probe is scheduled to be released in March.

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