Sri Lanka's president has acknowledged that the country has failed to heal deep, lingering divisions between ethnic groups since the end of the nation's brutal civil war five years ago and called for national reconciliation.

President Maithripala Sirisena's Independence Day speech on Wednesday was a sharp departure from those of his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who typically celebrated the country's military victory over the Tamil Tigers after a quarter century of conflict.

"The biggest challenge today is to unite the hearts of the people of the north and south through a national reconciliation process for coexistence," he said.

The rebels, defeated in May 2009, were based in the northern and eastern parts of the country and were fighting for an independent state.

"It is not proper to point fingers at each other," Sirisena continued. "All political parties and leaders who governed this country must look at themselves and meditate on their role and look to the future."

Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa, his former ally, in a surprise election victory in January.

Since his election, Sirisena has announced several measures to promote reconciliation, including the release of private lands occupied by the military during the civil war in the north and freeing rebel suspects detained for many years without trial. He also sacked a former military official as governor of the northern province, replacing him with a civilian officer.

His speech also comes weeks before the United Nations Human Rights Council is scheduled to release a report on war crimes allegations against the Sri Lankan government and the defeated Tamil Tiger rebels in the final months of the fighting.

A "declaration of peace" was also read out at the ceremony, paying respect to all people killed in the civil war and pledging not to allow such a conflict to occur again.

Source: AP