Sri Lanka says civilian war deaths unavoidable

August 1, 2011 - 5:43 AM

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka's government Monday acknowledged for the first time civilian casualties occurred in the final phase of its 26-year civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels but calls those deaths unavoidable.

A Defense Ministry report said "it was impossible" to avoid civilian deaths despite the military's best efforts, given the magnitude of the fighting and ruthlessness of the opponent. The government had so far maintained that non-combatants were not among the war dead because it adhered to a "zero civilian casualty policy."

The report analyzes the events of the war and denies allegations of human rights violations and prisoner executions by Sri Lankan troops during the hostilities.

The war ended in May 2009 after a final offensive in which tens of thousands of people were killed in just a few months, according to estimates by a United Nations experts panel.

"The government of Sri Lanka made every effort to protect civilians in the conflict zone through the creation of safe corridors and no-fire zones by adhering to a zero civilian casualty policy that had been conveyed to all troops through repeated training and operational orders," the report said.

"Despite the clear intent of the government of Sri Lanka and the numerous precautions taken, it was impossible in the battle of this magnitude, against a ruthless opponent actively endangering civilians, for civilian casualties to be avoided."

The report did not say how many civilians may have been killed.

It comes against the backdrop of a U.N. panel reporting earlier this year that it has found credible allegations of serious human rights violations involving both the government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels, some of which could amount to war crimes. It called for an independent international investigation.

Also, Britain's Channel 4 television has aired video clips allegedly taken by soldiers on the front that purports to show blindfolded prisoners, some stripped naked, being shot at close range and bodies of naked women being loaded into a tractor trailer.

Allegations listed by the U.N. panel against Sri Lankan forces included deliberate shelling of civilians and hospitals, blocking food and medicine to those trapped in the war zone and deliberately undercounting the number of civilians who were under rebel control.

Tamil Tigers were accused of holding civilians as human shields, killing those trying to escape their grip and conscripting child soldiers.

Sri Lanka's powerful Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa accused the defeated Tamil Tigers and members of a strong Tamil expatriate community of spreading the allegations to discredit the country.

"They make various allegation on the conduct of the humanitarian operation, which have unfortunately been given far too much attention. These allegations are quite absurd," said Rajapaksa.