Sri Lanka death toll unacceptably high, says UN

The United Nations said on Friday that the number of deaths in Sri Lanka’s civil war in recent months was ”unacceptably high”, but declined to give figures after media claims that the full toll was being concealed.

A spokesperson for the UN humanitarian coordination office (Ocha) said casualty numbers cited in various media recently were ”well-informed estimates” given in private briefings to member states to underscore its concern.

But she declined to give any figures.

British newspaper The Times reported that apart from confidential estimates of about 7 000 civilians who died up to the end of April, UN sources said the toll mounted thereafter with an average of 1 000 civilians killed daily until May 19.

That would take the toll to 20 000 in the final stages of the conflict when the Sri Lankan military crushed Tamil Tiger rebels in heavy fighting in a sliver of land packed with thousands of civilians, according to the newspaper.

Ocha spokesperson Elisabeth Byrs told Agence France-Presse: ”The UN has publicly and repeatedly said that the number of people killed in recent months has been unacceptably high and it has shared its estimates with the government as well as others concerned.

”You have seen the figures that are mentioned. Obviously, what we have are well-informed estimates and not precise, verifiable numbers.”

”The point is the UN has not been shy about the scale of human suffering and civilian casualties. It has been ringing the alarm bells for a long time,” she added.

The French newspaper Le Monde cited various UN sources as saying that the full figures were not made public to avoid damaging relations with Sri Lanka.

The Tamil Tigers were accused of holding tens of thousands of civilians as human shields in recent weeks, while government troops were alleged to have indiscriminately shelled rebel-held areas packed with civilians.

UN sources at various agencies in Geneva acknowledged that they were under pressure over their statements on Sri Lanka, especially casualty figures.

Currently UN and Red Cross relief agencies are trying to gain full access to about 250 000 displaced people held in government-run camps in northeastern Sri Lanka. — Sapa-AFP

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