COLOMBO - Sri Lanka's new government on Thursday accused the military of trying to sow unrest to sabotage its efforts to bring about ethnic reconciliation in the war-ravaged north of the country.
Sri Lanka has promised to give greater autonomy to the mainly Tamil northern peninsula, which was worst hit by the decades-long civil war, and remained heavily militarised under the former administration.
The government said it was investigating allegations that two senior military officers were training 400 troops to provoke unrest in Jaffna, capital of the northern province.
"We have information that saboteurs are being trained in small batches of 10 at a time and they are being deployed in Jaffna," said government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne.
Senaratne said the men had been ordered to carry out small-scale incidents across the former conflict zone to give the impression that the new government had no control.
Sri Lanka's new President Maithripala Sirisena has moved quickly to reduce the role of the military in Jaffna since he was elected on January 8, sacking the retired army general who ran the province and replacing him with a former diplomat.
The country's Tamil minority voted in large numbers for Sirisena, whose predecessor Mahinda Rajapakse oversaw the brutal military crushing of a Tamil separatist insurgency.
Rajapakse's regime won popularity for ending the 37-year conflict, but he was blamed for failing to ensure ethnic reconciliation between the Tamils and the island's Sinhalese majority.
Senaratne, who is also health minister in the new government, said senior military officers had been in contact with the former president's brother, ex-defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, about the alleged bid to destabilise Jaffna.
He also said the new government would return land taken from Tamil residents in Jaffna for commercial exploitation by the military.
He said there was no justification for the military to retain seized land in the area, where it has established hotels, restaurants and farms.
An army spokesman said the complaint had been brought to the attention of military chief Daya Ratnayake, but declined to comment on the allegation.
The United Nations estimates that at least 100,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka's Tamil separatist conflict between 1972 and 2009.
Senaratne said the government was working on releasing some 275 Tamil prisoners who have been held in custody for long periods without any charges brought against them.
The authorities are already investigating claims that Rajapakse tried to use military force to remain in power as election results showed he was headed for defeat.
Police have questioned several people, including the then chief justice Mohan Peiris, who was removed from his post on Wednesday.
The government has already committed to granting limited autonomy to Tamils in line with a 1987 law that has never been fully implemented.