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World may never know Sri Lanka death toll: UN

If numbers could tell a story, then this is one will always have a question mark. The United Nations (UN) has said that it would be impossible to find out how many civilians were killed in the weeks that led to the end of the war between the Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

world Updated: May 30, 2009 21:26 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

If numbers could tell a story, then this is one will always have a question mark. The United Nations (UN) has said that it would be impossible to find out how many civilians were killed in the weeks that led to the end of the war between the Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The UN Under-Secretary-General John Holmes, its humanitarian operations’ chief, has said it was unclear how many died in the months before Sri Lanka declared victory over the LTTE on May 18. Holmes was referring to the final phase of the war, which experts say began after the 'no fire zone' (NFZ) was designated on the coast of Mullaitivu in February.

Holmes told news agency Reuters that he disputed a death toll reported in The Times of London that cited a "UN source" to support an estimate that at least 20,000 people were killed during the months-long final siege.

"That figure has no status as far as we're concerned," Holmes said. "It may be right, it may be wrong, it may be far too high, it may even be too low. But we honestly don't know. We've always said an investigation would be a good idea," Holmes said. He said it was based on an unofficial and unverified UN estimate of around 7,000 civilian deaths through the end of April and added on roughly 1,000 more per day after that.

Earlier, the UN in Colombo had given a figure of at least 6200 civilians dying in the final phase of the war.

Independent verification of casualty figures was not possible because the government had banned journalists or observers from visiting the battle front. The only international organisation working in the zone was the International Committee for Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC which did speak of large number of casualties never spelt out a figure.

Holmes said there would likely never be a reliable death toll.

"I fear we may (never know), because I don't know that the government would be prepared to cooperate with any inquiry," Holmes said.

But there was no doubt "several thousand" civilians had died during the siege, he added.

During that siege, Holmes repeatedly criticised the government for shelling areas where civilians were trapped, warning that it could lead to a "bloodbath".