Group presents new evidence on abuses in Sri Lanka

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – An international rights group said Friday it has new evidence that wartime abuses were perpetrated against civilians during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s long and bloody civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels.

New York-based Human Rights Watch called on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “to promptly establish an international investigation to examine allegations of wartime abuse by both sides to the conflict,” it said in a statement.

Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in May 2009 after the military crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels in their stronghold in the country’s north. According to U.N documents, more than 7,000 civilians were killed in the last five months of the war.

An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people died during a quarter-century of fighting.

Government troops were accused of shelling a small strip of land where hundreds of thousands of people were boxed in during the last stages of the conflict.

The rebels were accused of killing noncombatants trying to leave the area they controlled and firing artillery from civilian-populated regions that led to the retaliatory military fire.

Human Rights Watch said it interviewed witnesses and examined 200 photographs taken by a Sri Lankan soldier on the front lines early last year.

“The new accounts by witnesses described indiscriminate shelling of large gatherings of civilians during the last weeks of fighting, apparently by government forces,” the group said.

It also accused the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam of abusing the civilian population. “The witnesses also described LTTE recruitment of children and LTTE attacks on civilians attempting to escape the war zone,” it said.

Among the photographs was a series of five shots showing a man identified as a Tamil political activist in the custody of army soldiers, then later lying on the ground, apparently dead.

“While Human Rights Watch cannot conclusively determine that the man was summarily executed in custody, the available evidence indicates that a full investigation is warranted,” it said.

Sri Lankan officials have denied in the past committing war crimes and refused calls to establish an international tribunal, saying it would conduct its own probe of the military’s conduct during the war. On Monday, the government established a “Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission” to look into the final phase of the conflict.

No immediate comment was available from the government Friday.

Human Rights Watch issued the statement days after Brussels-based International Crisis Group also said it had “credible evidence” of war crimes committed during the conclusion of Sri Lanka’s civil war. It, too, called for an international investigation.