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UN chief, top aide knew of Tamil massacre, claims report – The Economic Times

[MISC, Sunday, 31 May 2009 09:55 No Comment]

A day after reports that the final scorched-earth offensive against the Tamil Tigers killed more than 20,000 Tamil civilians, The Times, London, has The picture shows scattered graves of civilians in the final no-fire zone, which extended a few hundred metres around the last Tamil Tiger positions where 100,000 civilians were trapped. The graves indicate that pledges not to attack were breached by the Sri Lankan army.

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revealed that the top aide to the United Nations secretary-general knew of the staggering death toll and had been told more than a week before the figure came out in the media.

UN officials told Vijay Nambiar, an Indian diplomat who is Ban Ki-Moon’s chief of staff, that their figures indicated a likely civilian death toll of more than 20,000. The revelation came during a briefing in preparation for Ban’s visit to the region on May 23, the newspaper reported.

The daily said two staff present at the meeting confirmed the exchange to it but Ban never mentioned the toll during his tour of the battleground, which he described as the “most appalling scene” he had witnessed in his long international career. Nambiar, an IFS officer, has served at the UN earlier as India’s permanent representative.

The figure of 20,000, reported on Saturday by TOI, citing The Times, triggered calls for an independent probe into the number of civilians killed in the final weeks of the war. Amnesty International accused both sides of war crimes and demanded the UN unearth the truth. “The UN should do everything it can to determine the truth about the bloodbath that occurred in northeast Sri Lanka,” said Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi.

The 20,000 figure has also been obtained by the French daily Le Monde, which quoted UN sources as saying that the figure had not been made public to avoid a diplomatic storm. The figure of 7,000 deaths until the end of April, which was based on individually documented deaths and not estimates, was leaked by UN sources in Sri Lanka this month after internal anger over the secrecy surrounding them, The Times said. UN satellite images documenting the bombing of medical facilities were also leaked from New York, it said.

A top United Nations official disputed The Times report that cited UN sources but welcomed the idea of a probe. “The figure has no status as far as we’re concerned,” UN under secretary-general John Holmes said. “It may be right, it may be wrong, it may be far too high, it may even be too low. But we honestly don’t know. We’ve always said an investigation is a good idea.”

The UN Humanitarian Co-ordination Office said the figures cited by The Times were based on well-informed estimates given in private briefings to member states, including Britain and US, to underscore its concern.

“You have seen the figures that are mentioned. Obviously, what we have are well-informed estimates and not precise, verifiable numbers,” said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the humanitarian co-ordination office. “The point is the UN has not been shy about the scale of human suffering and civilian casualties. It has been ringing the alarm bells for a long time.”

Lanka rejects the toll

Colombo: Sri Lanka on Saturday rejected calls for a probe and dismissed the high civilian toll put at 20,000 by reports sourced to UN officials.

“These figures are way out,” said Lankan defence ministry spokesman Lakshman Hulugalle. “We totally deny the allegation that 20,000 people were killed,” he said.

The island nation’s human rights minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe, said Amnesty was “harping on things it can’t substantiate”.

The Colombo-based government has also rejected demands by the UN Human Rights Council for a fact-finding mission to probe war crimes allegations.

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