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Calls Grow For War Crimes Probe Into Sri Lanka Conflict – NASDAQ

[AFP, Wednesday, 20 May 2009 08:01 No Comment]

The prospect of war crimes charges following Sri Lanka’s military victory over Tamil Tiger rebels loomed larger Wednesday, with U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon backing growing calls for a full investigation.

Thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed during the offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE.

Both sides in the conflict have been accused of rights violations, with numerous aid agencies and rights groups alleging indiscriminate army shelling and condemning the Tigers for using civilians as a human shield.

The U.N. secretary-general, who is due to visit Sri Lanka at the end of the week, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that any serious allegations of war crimes "should be properly investigated."

"I remain concerned about the welfare and safety of the civilian population," Ban added.

The U.N.’s main rights body is to hold a special session on Sri Lanka next week.

"The Human Rights Council cannot be silent when innocent civilians are caught up in armed conflicts," said council president Martin Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi.

"The international community must strive to deliver justice to victims of human rights violations," he added.

The military Monday declared final victory in the decades-old conflict after overrunning the rebels’ last holdout in the northeast.

In the run-up to the final battle, there was a stream of eyewitness testimony to shelling by government troops that caused significant civilian casualties – testimony that has been staunchly denied by the military.

Aid workers were also denied access to those trapped by the fighting, despite accounts of a jungle area littered with the dead or dying, with the elderly, women and children cowering in shallow dugouts with little food or water for several months.

"There has to be accountability for what has gone on in Sri Lanka, there has to be clarity and there cannot be impunity," Rupert Colville, a spokesman for U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, said last week.

Pillay said in March that both sides might be guilty of war crimes.

"Nothing we’ve seen since then has caused us to change our minds, quite the contrary," Colville said, adding that an independent inquiry of some form "is now essential."

Former colonial power the U.K. also wants a probe, citing the "truly shocking and appalling" numbers of civilian dead.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had warned the Sri Lankan government that there would be "consequences for its actions."

U.N. officials say more than 6,500 Tamil civilians have died in the conflict since the start of the year, with the final days of the battle described as a " bloodbath on the beaches."

According to the campaign group Human Rights Watch, satellite imagery and witness accounts contradict government claims that heavy weapons haven’t been used. It said both sides in the war were using civilians as "cannon fodder."

Amnesty International has also demanded that "the mounting evidence of serious violations of international law" be investigated.

The hawkish government of President Mahinda Rajapakse described its military operation against the Tamil Tigers as the "world’s largest hostage rescue mission," and has yet to acknowledge blame for a single civilian death.

It is also convinced that any criticism of its handling of the war has been either an effort to save the rebels or blatant hypocrisy.

[Full Coverage]

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