Sri Lanka minister: UN charges of civilian killings baseless

Charges by the United Nations that 2 800 civilians had been killed in Sri Lanka in recent weeks were “unsubstantiated”, Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said on Saturday.

The minister denied that government forces were firing into a demarcated “safe zone” for civilians and accused UN human rights chief Navi Pillay of relying on pro-rebel elements to arrive at her assessment.

Pillay said in a statement on Friday that she feared both sides could be guilty of war crimes in the Sri Lanka conflict and that more than 2 800 civilians may have been killed since late January.

“It is very, very unprofessional of her [Pillay’s] office to rely on unsubstantiated figures,” Minister Samarasinghe told reporters in Colombo. “The figures are similar to those on Tiger proxy websites.”

“The army is not shelling into the safe zone for civilians.”

Government forces say they have trapped Tamil Tiger rebels into a narrow strip of coastal land in the north-eastern district of Mullaittivu where they hope to completely crush the guerrillas by next month.

Sri Lankan authorities have accused the Tigers of holding some 70 000 civilians hostage in the tiny territory still under their control as a human shield, a charge denied by the Tigers.

However, the UN estimates there are more people trapped by the fighting who are at great risk.

The UN says a total of 150 000 to 180 000 civilians remain cornered in an ever-shrinking area of territory under rebel control.

“Certain actions being undertaken by the Sri Lankan military and by the LTTE [Tamil Tiger rebels] may constitute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law,” Pillay said in a statement.

“We need to know more about what is going on, but we know enough to be sure the situation is absolutely desperate. The world today is ever sensitive about such acts that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” she added.

The statement said credible sources told the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) that more than 2 800 civilians might have been killed, including hundreds of children, and more than 7 000 injured since January 20.

Many of the casualties were inside areas designated as safe “no-fire” zones by the Sri Lankan government, the OHCHR statement added.

“The current level of civilian casualties is truly shocking, and there are legitimate fears that the loss of life may reach catastrophic levels, if the fighting continues in this way,” Pillay warned.

“The brutal and inhuman treatment of civilians by the LTTE is utterly reprehensible, and should be examined to see if it constitutes war crimes,” she added.

The government bars most journalists and aid workers from the north of the island, meaning the claims cannot be confirmed.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for a swift halt to the conflict to avoid further civilian casualties after the International Red Cross said in January that “hundreds” had been killed.—AFP

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