Dec 19, 7:06 AM EST

Sri Lankan opposition presidential candidate vows domestic inquiry into alleged war crimes


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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) -- Sri Lanka's main opposition presidential candidate said Friday that the country cannot be charged with war crimes in the International Criminal Court, but he will launch a domestic inquiry if he wins a January election.

Maithripala Sirisena said in a policy statement that Sri Lanka has not ratified the statute establishing the international court and therefore is not subject to it. He said he would instead institute an investigation by a local independent court. He also pledged to protect everyone who contributed to the defeat of Tamil Tiger separatists in the country's civil war from international action.

His main rival, incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has asked voters to give him a third term in office in the Jan. 8 election to stop what he calls an overseas attempt to take him and his soldiers to the International Criminal Court.

The U.N. Human Rights Council is investigating allegations of war crimes by the government and Tamil Tiger rebels during the civil war. An earlier U.N. inquiry said at least 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians died, most from government shelling, in the final months of the war, which ended in 2009.

The government is accused of deliberately shelling civilians and hospitals, and blocking food and medicine for civilians trapped in the war zone. The Tamil Tigers are accused of recruiting child soldiers, holding civilians as human shields and killing those trying to escape.

Sirisena, a former health minister, defected from Rajapaksa's government last month to become the main opposition candidate. He is backed by the opposition United National Party.

Sirisena, who has accused Rajapaksa of creating an autocracy, has promised to trim extensive executive powers if he becomes president and make the office accountable to Parliament and the courts.

Sirisena also promised a balanced foreign policy, in contrast to the Rajapaksa administration's increasing closeness to China to the anger of immediate neighbor India.

"Sri Lanka is rapidly getting isolated from the international community," he said. "Equal relations will be established with India, China, Pakistan and Japan - the principal countries of Asia - while improving friendly relations with emerging Asian nations such as Thailand, Indonesia and Korea without distinction."

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