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Rights groups want probe into Sri Lanka war abuses

[AP, Thursday, 18 June 2009 12:39 No Comment]

Human rights groups called Thursday for an international investigation into wartime abuses in Sri Lanka, saying the government lacks the political will to investigate the incidents on its own.

Rights groups accused the government of firing heavy weapons into civilian areas in the final months of the island nation’s quarter-century civil war, which ended last month. The Tamil Tigers were accused of holding the civilians as human shields and shooting those who tried to flee. Both sides denied the allegations.

U.N. figures show that more than 7,000 civilians were killed in fighting this year before the war ended.

The Tamil Tigers’ intelligence wing confirmed Thursday that rebel chief Velupillai Prabhakaran was among those killed in the fighting, ending an apparent rift with other rebel officials who announced Prabhakaran’s death last month.

"We confirm emphatically that the national leader did not surrender and was not arrested, but fought attaining martyrdom," Kathirkamathamby Arivazhakan, a top rebel intelligence official, said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press.

Security forces continue to sweep the country for rebel sleeper cells, and police said they killed three rebels who attacked a group of officers trying to search a car in the northern Vavuniya district Thursday.

After declaring victory last month, President Mahinda Rajapaksa told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon the government would look into abuse claims itself, but Human Rights Watch said Sri Lanka’s decision to shut down a presidential inquiry into earlier abuses proved it had little intention of pursuing justice.

That commission was investigating 16 cases, including the killing of 17 aid workers in eastern Sri Lanka in 2006. Though it had only completed seven of the cases, its mandate expired Sunday and was not renewed.

"The decision to disband the presidential commission shows that President Rajapaksa has little intention of fulfilling his promise to Secretary-General Ban," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at the New York-based rights group. "It’s now up to concerned governments to step in and ensure that justice is done for the victims of abuses in Sri Lanka’s long war."

The group said that despite tens of thousands of cases of rights violations, including enforced disappearances and unlawful killings, there have only been a small number of prosecutions.

Government spokesmen did not respond to calls for comment. Officials have previously brushed off calls for an international inquiry as a violation of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.

Amnesty International, which also called for an international investigation, demanded that the defunct presidential commission’s reports be made public.

"Families of the victims and survivors need answers," said Yolanda Foster, the London-based group’s Sri Lanka expert. "These people still have not received any justice from the Sri Lankan government, either through the judicial system or through this presidential investigation."

Meanwhile, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said at least 11 Sri Lankan reporters were forced to flee the country in the past year amid a government crackdown on dissent.

A total of 39 journalists across the globe were forced from their countries, but Sri Lanka had by far the highest number of fleeing reporters, the report said.

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