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Report Finds Sri Lanka Attacked Civilians

[NYTimes, Monday, 18 April 2011 11:43 No Comment]

A United Nations panel investigating allegations of war crimes by Sri Lankan troops at the end of the bloody battle against the Tamil Tigers in May 2009 found that there was credible evidence that government soldiers had targeted civilians, shelled hospitals and attacked humanitarian workers, according to a leaked copy of the panel’s report.

“Tens of thousands lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of whom died anonymously in the carnage of the final few days,” the report said, significantly increasing the United Nations estimate for the civilian death toll in the last days of the war.

The long awaited report, the result of an extensive investigation led by Marzuki Darusman, a former Indonesian attorney-general, contradicted the government’s assertion that the war was a humanitarian effort aimed at liberating civilians trapped with the Tamil Tigers in an ever-shrinking corner of northern Sri Lanka.

“The Government shelled on a large scale in three consecutive No Fire Zones, where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate, even after indicating that it would cease the use of heavy weapons,” the report said, according to a leaked copy that was published over the weekend in the Island, a Sri Lankan newspaper. “Most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by Government shelling.”

In a statement, the government rejected the report as “fundamentally flawed” and based on “patently biased material, which is presented without any verification.”

The Sri Lankan government has come under harsh scrutiny for its handling of the war against the Tamil Tigers, a separatist rebel group that for decades sought to establish a Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island nation. The Tigers fought a viscous and bloody insurgency that pioneered brutal tactics like using female suicide bombers and forcibly conscripting children as soldiers.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s president, had pledged to end the war in his successful 2005 campaign. By May 2009, his troops had the Tigers pinned down in a remote corner of the northeast. The government refused to allow any civilian observers into the war zone, where hundreds of thousands of people were trapped between the rebels and government troops. The government claimed it had a zero-tolerance policy for civilian casualties, but people who escaped the war zone told of indiscriminate shelling of civilians by the government. No one has been able to pinpoint the exact number killed as much of the area remains off limits to outsiders.

The Sri Lankan government has set up its own body to look into the last days of the war, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The United Nations report said that the panel is riddled with conflicts of interest and is not impartial, concluding that it “has not conducted genuine truth-seeking about what happened in the final stages of the armed conflict, not sought to investigate systematically and impartially the allegations of serious violations on both sides of the war.”

The report also said that the Tamil Tigers committed war crimes. “Despite grave danger in the conflict zone, the LTTE refused civilians permission to leave, using them as hostages, at times even using their presence as a strategic human buffer between themselves and the advancing Sri Lanka Army,” the report said. “From February 2009 onwards, the LTTE started point-blank shooting of civilians who attempted to escape the conflict zone, significantly adding to the death toll in the final stages of the war.”

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