Sri Lanka rejects truce calls as Britain demands war crimes probe
Sri Lanka rejected international calls to halt its final offensive against Tamil rebels, hours after the United Nations Security Council called for civilian lives to be spared.world Updated: May 14, 2009 21:14 IST
Sri Lanka rejected international calls to halt its final offensive against Tamil rebels on Thursday, hours after the United Nations Security Council called for civilian lives to be spared.
Instead, troops pressed ahead with their major push aimed at completely defeating the remaining Tiger fighters, the military said as the former colonial power, Britain, raised the prospect of a war crimes investigation.
The military insists that it does not target civilians and that the current offensive is also aimed at freeing tens of thousands of civilians still held by Tiger rebels as a human shield.
“More than 2,000 people crossed over to government-controlled areas on Thursday” and a further 2,000 people were lined up waiting to flee, military spokesman Udaya Nanayakkara said.
He said the Tigers gunned down at least four people who tried to make a dash to safety from the shrinking rebel-held territory along the northeastern coast of the island. Another 14 were wounded, he added.
Britain said the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka was “truly shocking.”
“We would support an early investigation into all incidents that may have resulted in civilian casualties ... to determine whether war crimes have been committed,” junior foreign minister Bill Rammell said.
“The UN’s estimate, if it is accurate, of over 6,500 civilian deaths since January is truly shocking and appalling,” he added, in a parliamentary debate on the military standoff on the island nation.
Amnesty International called Wednesday for a probe into “the mounting evidence of serious violations of international law,” and the UN’s human rights chief Navi Pillay has already said both sides may be guilty of war crimes.
Sri Lanka remained defiant despite the calls to halt the onslaught against the Tamil separatists who are said to be on the verge of defeat after 37 years of fighting.
“We are not going to succumb to international pressure to stop the offensive,” said Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, who argued that Sri Lanka was being unfairly targeted.
“In Pakistan and Afghanistan there are similar conflicts but no one is asking them to have a peace agreement or a ceasefire,” Abeywardena told reporters.
“There is no international pressure there,” he added. “Why only target us?”
His comments followed a statement issued late Wednesday by the UN Security Council urging both Colombo and the Tigers to “ensure the safety of civilians” and “respect their obligations under international humanitarian law.”
Sri Lankan authorities estimate that up to 20,000 civilians are being held in the small northeastern pocket of coastal jungle where government troops have cornered the rump of the once-powerful Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The United Nations has said as many as 50,000 may be trapped -- huddled under plastic sheeting, in shallow bunkers and with little food, water or medical facilities.
Video footage released by pro-rebel websites showed wounded women carrying small children who themselves were in bandages and screaming in pain. School yards had been turned into emergency treatment centres.
US President Barack Obama Wednesday called on the Sri Lankan government to allow UN humanitarian teams access to the combat zone to ease the unfolding “catastrophe” there.
“That is not possible,” Sri Lankan minister Abeywardena said.
“As a responsible government, we can’t guarantee their safety. Even the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) is finding it difficult to deliver food supplies there.”
The UN and Obama also appealed to Sri Lanka to stop using heavy weapons to avoid civilian casualties, as troops pushed to dismantle the last remaining rebel stronghold.
Around 100 people have been reported killed in the shelling of a makeshift hospital inside the conflict zone in recent days.
A rebel statement said thousands of civilians have died this week in artillery attacks, but the government insisted the Tigers were targeting civilians in a bid to encourage international intervention.