May 17, 2010 / 2:45 PM / 9 years ago

Investigate end of Sri Lanka's war, rights groups say

By C. Bryson Hull

COLOMBO, May 17 (Reuters) - Rights groups on Monday urged the United Nations to investigate potential war crimes at the end of Sri Lanka’s 25-year war, repeating charges that tens of thousands died in the final months. On May 19 last year, the Sri Lankan government declared total victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which fought for over three decades to establish a separate nation for the Indian Ocean island nation’s Tamil minority.

The government has repeatedly rejected the charges of civilian deaths as grossly exaggerated, and denied that any of its security forces committed war crimes or rights violations.

The crushing military defeat of the LTTE came in spite of months of Western pressure for a ceasefire to protect tens of thousands of civilians trapped in an ever-shrinking war zone.

Both the International Crisis Group and Amnesty International renewed calls for an investigation, and took the United Nations to task for failing to act decisively so far.

"The U.N. never revealed what it knew about the final days of the conflict, acknowledged the scale of the abuse that took place, or pushed for accountability," said Madhu Malhotra, Amnesty’s deputy director for Asia-Pacific.

Crisis Group went so far as to recommend the world body should open an inquiry into its own conduct in Sri Lanka including "its ineffectual attempts to push for a ceasefire."

ICG said its investigation had produced new evidence that "tens of thousands" had died, but said it was safeguarding the material to protect witnesses from retaliation.

The Sri Lankan government had no immediate comment, but has rejected past allegations of abuse.

Diplomats privately have estimated the final civilian death toll from the last months of the war to be around 11,000 to 13,000, but caution that no one has established an authoritative figure and may never be able to do so.

On Monday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa named an eight-member panel to glean lessons learned from the last seven years of the war, in terms of reconciliation and preventing future violence.

Sri Lanka has a decades-long history of commissions of inquiry that rarely, if ever, produce any meaningful findings.

In the capital Colombo, torrential rain ahead of the southwest monsoon season caused a delay in rehearsals for a military parade marking the anniversary of the victory. (Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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