By Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal
COLOMBO, March 17 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka arrested two human rights activists in the former northern war zone, the military said on Monday, using anti-terrorism legislation that was used to crush Tamil Tiger rebels during the final phase of a 26-year war.
Ruki Fernando, a human rights adviser, and Praveen Mahesahn, a pastor and director of a rights group, were arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which provides security forces with sweeping powers for the arrest and detention of suspects.
"Police have taken them into custody under PTA for questioning as they have visited some place, suspicious in nature," military spokesman Ruwan Wanigasooriya told Reuters.
The arrests were carried out by a terrorism investigation department of the police, which works closely with the military in the north.
Residents living in the area where the two men were picked up said they had been gathering information on the circumstances surrounding the arrest last week of an ethnic Tamil woman in former rebel de-facto capital of Kilinochchi.
Balendran Jayakumari, a 50-year-old widow and mother of four has been held under the counter-terrorsim law for three months on charges of harboring a criminal who shot at a police officer to evade arrest.
The UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay in a report last month expressed grave concern at the harassment and intimidation against individuals or groups who met or attempted to meet her.
Rights groups have criticised Sri Lanka over the abuse, and sometimes death, of suspects held in custody.
The arrest of the two activists came amid growing international pressure on the government to address allegations that tens of thousands of civilians were killed by the army in the final weeks of the war. Many more people are still missing.
Military and police sources told Reuters Jayakumari and the two human rights defenders were detained on suspicion that they were involved in attempts to revive the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Western governments and United Nations have asked the island nation to investigate alleged war crimes and continuing human rights abuses.
The United States has also called for a resolution at the U.N.'s Human Rights Council to investigate "past abuses and to examine more recent attacks on journalists, human rights defenders, and religious minorities."
The U.S. embassy in Colombo urged the authorities to "ensure that all those detained are given transparent and due legal process, including full access to legal counsel."
"With these latest actions, we remain convinced that continued scrutiny by the Human Rights Council is necessary," the Embassy said in a statement. (Reporting by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)