Sri Lanka 'counting civilian war deaths'

File photo of Sri Lankan soldiers Both sides were accused of committing abuses in the final stages of the war

Sri Lanka is close to completing a census of the number of civilians who died in the final phase of the civil war, the defence secretary has said.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said the count proves the number of people killed as a result of government action was "far too small" to constitute war crimes.

In April, a UN-backed report said tens of thousands may have died and pointed to evidence of army bombardment.

The government has rejected such claims and calls for an international probe.

In May 2009, the army defeated Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for a separate homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka, after almost 26 years of civil war.

Much of the controversy surrounding the conduct of the army and the rebels centres on what happened during the closing stages of that war, when tens of thousands of civilians were hemmed into a narrow strip of land in the north of the country caught between government and rebel fighting.

'Absurd allegations'

For two years, the government maintained that no civilians died as a result of military action during the final stages of the conflict. But correspondents say that it has recently softened its stance on this line.

Start Quote

As a result of the census, we already know that the real number of dead and missing is far too small to provide any substance to the absurd allegations of genocide ”

End Quote Gotabhaya Rajapaksa Sri Lankan Defence Secretary

On Thursday, for the first time the defence secretary also acknowledged that a small number of soldiers may be responsible for some crimes.

He told a conference that individuals who were not fit to "withstand the pressures of warfare" may have been recruited into Sri Lanka's military as it had to expand so rapidly in recent years.

But Mr Rajapaksa rejected any claims that civilians may have died in great numbers.

"As a result of the census, we already know that the real number of dead and missing is far too small to provide any substance to the absurd allegations of genocide and war crimes that have been made against our military," he said.

Analysts say that while the census of civilian deaths is the first time that the government has attempted to address the issue, it is unclear exactly how such a count has been conducted and how cause of death is being ascertained.

In his speech, the defence secretary said the census was close to completion and would include those who died of natural causes and accidents as well as those who died while fighting for the rebels, whether they were coerced or volunteers.

The final category of deaths are those who died as a result of military action.

An MP from the largest Tamil party, Suresh Premachandran, told the BBC 's Charles Haviland in Colombo that the defence secretary's comments were "not acceptable".

He asserted that nearly 140,000 civilians caught up in the final battles were unaccounted for and that more than 40,000 of these had been killed by the government's actions. He said that any census of casualties must be carried out by an internationally recognised organisation, not by what he called "the offenders".

Controversial commission

The news that a count of the war dead is under way comes just days after an a panel of investigators handed in their report on the final stage of the war to Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Human rights groups say that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is deeply flawed and has provided no accountability for atrocities the government is alleged to have committed during the war. The government insists the commission will provide justice.

April's report, commissioned by the UN, said it had "credible allegations" of war crimes committed by both the army and Tamil Tiger rebels.

After a 10-month investigation, the UN panel concluded that "most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling".

It alleged that Sri Lankan troops shelled civilians in a no-fire zone and targeted hospitals in their push to finish off the Tamil Tigers.

The rebels were accused of holding civilians as human shields, using child soldiers and killing people who tried to leave areas under their control.

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