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Sri Lanka says civilian war deaths unavoidable

[AP, Monday, 1 August 2011 17:10 No Comment]

Sri Lanka acknowledged for the first time Monday that civilian casualties occurred in the final phase of its 26-year civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels, but called the deaths unavoidable.

The government’s statement — issued a few months after a U.N. experts panel cited credible claims of human rights violations by both troops and the rebels — marks a reversal from its insistence that its troops adhered to a "zero civilian casualty policy."

It also hopes the document will convince the world that it waged a just war.

A Defense Ministry report said "it was impossible" to avoid civilian deaths, despite the military’s best efforts, given the magnitude of the fighting and ruthlessness of the opponent.

The report analyzes the war’s events and denies allegations that troops committed rights violations and executed prisoners before the war ended in May 2009,

Tens of thousands of people were killed in the last months of the war, the United Nations panel said. The Defense Ministry report does not say, however, how many civilians may have been killed.

It says the government "made every effort to protect civilians in the conflict zone through the creation of safe corridors and no-fire zones by adhering to a zero civilian casualty policy that had been conveyed to all troops through repeated training and operational orders."

Nevertheless, "it was impossible in the battle of this magnitude, against a ruthless opponent actively endangering civilians, for civilian casualties to be avoided."

Countries including the United States have joined the U.N. panel and international human rights groups in calling for an independent investigation into the alleged rights violations, some of which the panel said could amount to war crimes.

Footage allegedly taken by front-line soldiers and aired several times since the war’s end on Britain’s Channel 4 television appear to show blindfolded prisoners being shot at close range and the bodies of naked women being loaded into a tractor trailer.

The government hoped the report would show it had carried out its military explanation well, said Lakshman Hulugalla, head of government’s Media Center for National Security.

"We are not responding to anybody. We want the world to know how the operation was done," Hulugalla said.

The alleged troop violations, according to the U.N. panel, include deliberate shelling of civilians after asking them to move into a no-fire zone, targeting hospitals, blocking food and medicine to those trapped in the war zone and deliberately undercounting the number of civilians in rebel-controlled territory.

On the other side, Tamil Tigers have been accused of holding civilians as human shields, killing those who tried to escape and conscripting child soldiers.

Sri Lanka’s powerful Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa accused the defeated Tamil Tigers and members of a strong Tamil expatriate community of spreading the allegations to discredit the country.

He called the allegations "absurd," saying they "have unfortunately been given far too much attention" and insisting the military action had allowed peace and normalcy to return to Sri Lanka.

[Full Coverage]

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