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US to press Sri Lanka on war crimes allegations at UN Human Rights Council

The United States said Monday it will sponsor a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council that Sri Lanka is worried could call for an international investigation into allegations of war crimes during the island nation's civil conflict.

Hoping to head off that threat, a top aide to Sri Lanka's powerful president is in Washington this week, trying to persuade the Obama administration and lawmakers that Sri Lanka is on a path toward national reconciliation, nearly five years after crushing a quarter-century rebellion by ethnic Tamil fighters.

While Sri Lanka has enjoyed relative peace since then, it hasn't satisfied concerns, principally from Western nations, over the fate of tens thousands of Tamil civilians in the dying months of the war in 2009, when government forces were closing in on Tamil Tiger rebels cornered on a sliver of land in the island's northeast.

A U.N. report previously said as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians died, mostly in government attacks, but Sri Lanka denies such a high toll and has repeatedly denied it deliberately targeted civilians.

In November, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he would call for a U.N.-backed investigation into allegations of war crimes unless there was progress on postwar reconciliation by March, when the U.N. Human Rights Council holds a bi-annual session. During the past two years, the council passed resolutions calling on Sri Lanka to conduct its own investigations into war crimes allegations against both government troops and the Tigers.

The U.S. State Department said Monday it would be sponsoring a resolution on Sri Lanka this March, but wouldn't say whether it would call for an international investigation. But officials said that the fact the U.S. is pushing a third resolution in as many years reflects concern over a lack of progress in addressing outstanding issues of accountability and reconciliation, as well as over land seizures, religiously motivated attacks and unsolved cases of attacks on journalists.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Embassy in Colombo prompted Sri Lankan anger when it posted a photograph on Twitter of U.S. Ambassador for Global Criminal Justice Stephen Rapp visiting a site in the country's north where it said hundreds of families were killed by army shelling in 2009.

Human Rights Watch has previously reported that a makeshift hospital in that area came under repeated fire.

But Lalith Weeratunga, secretary to Sri Lanka's president and his point man on government's own reconciliation efforts, said there was no record that hundreds of people were killed there.

"You can't just pass judgment like that," he told The Associated Press. He denied any such targeting of civilians by the Sri Lankan armed forces, or even the use of heavy weapons in the final months of the war, although he acknowledged there could have been "collateral damage" during the fighting when the Tamil Tigers were using civilians as human shields.

Weeratunga, speaking ahead of a meeting with the top U.S. diplomat for South Asia, Nisha Biswal, likened the threat of an international inquiry into war crimes to a sword of Damocles hanging by a thread over Sri Lanka — a reference to mythical story from ancient Greece. He argued the government has only had 18 months to implement the recommendations of its own reconciliation commission. He warned that if that process was mishandled, it could trigger renewed conflict.

"I can't use an American method for resolving issues in my country. I have a Sri Lankan way of doing it," he said.

Outlining the government's achievements since the war, Weeratunga said 250,000 of the nearly 300,000 displaced people have been resettled, and a panel of judges is examining some 13,000 petitions by families of missing people. A Tamil-led northern provincial council elected last fall shows political devolution has begun in Sri Lanka, he said.

Tamils, however, still claim discrimination by the ethnic Sinhalese. Human rights activists also say the government is not serious about probing reported abuses by its own armed forces, accused of targeting hospitals and blocking food and medicine as a war strategy.

"At some point, you have to come to terms with the reality that this government has no intention of delivering accountability," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch in Washington. "If they are not going to do it, then the international community has to."

The newly elected Tamil-run Northern Provincial Council said Monday it wants to prove that the central government carried out an operation "akin to genocide" to win the civil war. It passed a resolution to conduct its own internationally supervised count of the dead and missing civilians to back its claim.

That's a response to a census of the dead, wounded and missing civilians being undertaken by the central government, the results of which are expected out in time for the U.N. session.

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