/ 15 August 2006

Unicef: Bombed orphans were not Tamil Tigers

The United Nations children’s agency and Nordic truce monitors on Tuesday rejected Sri Lankan claims that dozens of children killed in an air force bombing raid were child soldiers.

A team from the UN children’s fund (Unicef) and the Swedish-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) visited the bombed site and said they had found no evidence to support claims the rebels had been using the facility as a military training centre.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said 61 children were killed and 150 wounded in Monday’s air raid, which they said targeted on orphanage in rebel-held northern Mullaitivu district where schoolgirls were attending a first-aid course.

The Sri Lankan government said it hit an LTTE training facility and that if children were among the victims, they were child soldiers forcibly recruited by the rebels.

Sri Lankan government spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella on Tuesday dismissed the reports of Unicef and the SLMM, saying the two independent groups in reaching their findings had not used military experts.

”They have not sent people with any war experience to study the place,” Rambukwella told reporters.

”We have studied this for three years and know what was going on. They used this place to provide combatants to the Tigers.”

The government showed video footage from a military spy plane to reporters shortly after the air raid.

Rambukwella, Policy Planning Minister and government defence spokesperson, pointed to dark figures in the military video and said they were Tiger cadres running away after the attack.

However, there was nothing in the footage that reporters could see to suggest any military activity except that the location was secluded and had lush green trees in the neighbourhood.

A team from Unicef had visited the site on Monday and was horrified at the extent of the carnage, said Sri Lankan representative JoAnna VanGerpen.

”These were children from surrounding schools in the area who were brought there for a two-day training workshop on first aid, by whom we don’t know yet,” she told Agence France-Presse.

”We have not been able to come down as to who organised this training.”

Unicef has already accused the Tigers of recruiting over 3 500 child soldiers since a truce in February 2002 but there was no indication that those killed and injured on Monday were among them.

”As of this time, we don’t have any evidence that they are LTTE cadres,” she said.

VanGerpen said the Unicef team visited a hospital and found more than 100 children, mostly girls aged between 16 to 19, being treated for various injuries.

She did not have exact figures on how many were killed or injured.

”We visited the site and saw severed limbs that were there, but we don’t know if they were from the children. Most of the children we saw in the hospital had head injuries, shrapnel injuries,” VanGerpen said.

The SLMM said they too had visited the area, which they described as a civilian territory but may have in the past been used by the rebels.

SLMM spokesperson Thorfinnur Omarsson said no rebel uniforms or other paraphernalia had been recovered from the rubble.

”This place might have been used sometime [in the past] as a military training camp or something because the location is very good for things like that, but what we saw yesterday [Monday], there is no evidence of that,” he said.

”We did not see any indication of military activities,” Omarsson said, adding that between 12 and 16 bombs had landed in the area.

Fears that the rebels could stage retaliatory attacks forced the government to announce an indefinite closure of all schools from Tuesday. — AFP