By Ranga Sirilal
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's former army chief walked free from jail on Monday with a pardon from President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who appears to have bowed to growing international demands that he release his highest-profile rival.
Ex-General Sarath Fonseka kissed his hands and raised them to a group of 2,000 supporters who cheered "Victory to our war hero! Victory to our leader!" and lit firecrackers outside the maximum security prison. Some waved the national flag, emblazoned with a lion and a sword, as he released a white dove symbolizing peace.
Regarded by many as a hero for helping end Sri Lanka's 25-year civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels, Fonseka fell out with the government and was imprisoned after a failed presidential bid against former ally Rajapaksa two years ago.
Arrested by soldiers who had been under his own command, Fonseka was stripped of his rank as a four-star general.
He trailed Rajapaksa by 17 points in the last presidential election and with the next one not due until 2016, he is not seen as an immediate political threat. His health has deteriorated in prison, increasing pressure on Rajapaksa to free him.
The United States considered him a political prisoner and repeatedly called for his release, along with demands on Rajapaksa to do more towards reconciliation with the losing side in the aftermath of the war.
At a meeting in Washington on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Sri Lanka's foreign minister to address human rights issues and respect press freedoms.
"The general is free because of international pressure from human rights groups and other countries. He was a political prisoner and should have been set free long ago," said supporter Athula Dhabare outside Welikada Prison. "He is the true leader who liberated this country from 30 years of war." Continued...