Sri Lanka denies UN charges on civilian killings (Lead)

March 14th, 2009 - 5:52 pm ICT by IANS  

Colombo, March 14 (IANS) Sri Lanka Saturday rejected the charges by the United Nations that 2,800 civilians had been killed in the island’s northern war-zone in recent weeks, saying the figures by the world body were “unsubstantiated”.
“We are very disappointed and dismayed about this statement. The (UN) statement relies heavily on so-called reliable sources and puts down unsubstantiated figures in respect of civilian killings and injuries (in the war-zone),” Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told reporters here Saturday.

The minister denied the charges that government forces were firing heavy weapons into the demarcated “safe zone” for civilians and complained that the statement by the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Navi Pillay, was made without consulting and accommodating the position of Colombo.

“Our armed forces have never targeted civilians and will never target civilians,” Samarasinghe said.

Issuing a strong statement in Geneva, Pillay said that despite the government’s designation of safe zones or no-fire zones for civilians, “repeated shelling has continued inside those zones”.

“A range of credible sources have indicated that more than 2,800 civilians may have been killed and more than 7,000 injured since 20 January, many of them inside the no-fire zones. The casualties are believed to include hundreds of children killed and more than a thousand injured,” Pillay said in the statement.

“What is very alarming to us is that these figures correspond to the figures put forward by the Tamilnet and the other (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) LTTE-front organisations and personalities who are working on the sidelines of the UNHRC sessions in Geneva,” Minister Samarasinghe said at the special media briefing.

“This is not the way to talk about figures. These are unsubstantiated figures and we do not agree with them,” he said, adding that he held talks with the UN Human Rights High Commission (UNHRC) chief in Geneva last week and she never raised the issue with him.

The minister said the UN has notably failed in its statement to urge the LTTE to free the civilians it was holding hostage.

Sri Lankan authorities have accused the Tamil Tigers of holding some 70,000 civilians hostage as a human shield in the fast shrinking and now tiny territory still under their control, to delay its inevitable military defeat after three decades.

The UN statement said 150,000 to 180,000 civilians remain cornered in an ever-shrinking LTTE-held area. It said the LTTE was not only holding civilians “as human shields”, but also “reported to have shot at civilians trying to leave the area they control”.

“They are also believed to have been forcibly recruiting civilians, including children, as soldiers. The brutal and inhuman treatment of civilians by the LTTE is utterly reprehensible, and should be examined to see if it constitutes war crimes,” said Pillay.

“Certain actions being undertaken by the Sri Lankan military and by the LTTE may constitute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law,” Pillay said in the 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.

Answering a question on the war crimes in the UN statement, consultant to Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry, Rohan Perera said the world body has “referred the term - war crimes - in a general way” and all the yardsticks on that count would point the finger towards none other than the LTTE.

Samarasinghe said the government would hold talks and clarify the issue with the UNHRC office Monday with regard to its recent statement.

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