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'Avoiding civilian casualties was impossible'

Sri Lanka said on Monday it had been impossible to avoid all civilian casualties during a final offensive to wipe out the Tamil Tigers in 2009, but in a new report said its soldiers used only the necessary force required to defeat a well-armed enemy.

world Updated: Aug 01, 2011 18:54 IST

Sri Lanka said on Monday it had been impossible to avoid all civilian casualties during a final offensive to wipe out the Tamil Tigers in 2009, but in a new report said its soldiers used only the necessary force required to defeat a well-armed enemy.

For only the second time since the war's final months in 2009, the government conceded that civilians were killed in the assault on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the top civil servant in charge of Sri Lanka's security forces and architect of the victory, presented his ministry's account of the war, entitled "Humanitarian Operation-Factual Analysis".

"It was impossible in a battle of this magnitude, against a ruthless opponent actively endangering civilians, for civilian casualties to be avoided," the report, which covers the July 2006-May 2009 phase of the 25-year war, says.

Although Sri Lanka's government has repeatedly said it followed a "zero civilian casualty policy", Rajapaksa in February 2009 told Reuters: "There may be some civilian casualties, but not mass (casualties)".

The report appears to be a response to the conclusions of a panel commissioned by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to advise him on possible war and rights violations during the war, and British broadcaster Channel 4's reporting of alleged atrocities.

"Free of combat"
It outlines the operational measures taken by Sri Lanka's military to avoid casualties, including the use of hostage rescue-trained teams, training in humanitarian law for more than 200,000 personnel and the wide deployment of snipers.

"This had a tremendous impact on the civilians as they observed that the targets taken were the LTTE combatants engaged in the act of firing, and security forces carefully avoided the civilians," the report says.

The report does not directly address accusations the army shelled field hospitals, but says that the LTTE launched attacks from areas "supposed to be free of combat, like hospitals". The UN report says much the same.

Rajapaksa, who is President Mahinda Rajapaksa's younger brother and a decorated infantry officer, said there was satellite evidence to prove the army did not deliberately shell hospitals. However, rights groups say that evidence shows hospitals were hit, but cannot say whether it was on purpose.

The Indian Ocean island's government is under heavy pressure from Britain and the United States and others to probe allegations that war crimes were committed during the final month of the 25-year war with the Tigers that ended in May 2009.

The UN advisory panel in April said it had received "credible evidence" that Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE both may have committed atrocities, and recommended an international probe. Sri Lanka says it is investigating itself.

Rajapaksa, who is a favourite target of the pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora and rights groups, rejected several oft-repeated accusations including one that as many as 40,000 civilians were killed in the final months.

"This a vague accusation, based on even vaguer arithmetic which keeps getting repeated with out any sort of critical analysis by people who should know better," Rajapaksa told reporters.

Many of the allegations in the UN report first appeared on pro-LTTE web sites, and many involve unidentified sources. The number of civilian deaths has been hotly debated, with the government arguing many LTTE fighters fought in civilian garb.

The United Nations has disavowed an internal tally that showed about 7,000 civilians died, which was leaked to the media and accounts of up to 40,000 or more deaths have yet to be substantiated by any independent authority.