Rights group accuses Sri Lanka, Tamil rebels of war crimes at end of conflict

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — An international rights group said Monday there were "reasonable grounds" to believe Sri Lankan forces committed war crimes during the final months of the country's civil war and called for an international investigation.

In a scathing report, the International Crisis Group said tens of thousands of civilians were killed in shelling and other violence in the last battles of the quarter-century conflict between government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels, which ended last May.

The Brussels-based organization said it had "credible evidence" that government security forces intentionally shelled civilians after herding them into so-called "no-fire zones" and deliberately targeted hospitals and centers were aid was being distributed.

The government also blocked food and medical shipments to the area, and deliberately underestimated the number of civilians trapped inside the ever-shrinking rebel territory, the report said

The last five months of the war — between January and May 2009 — saw "tens of thousands of Tamil civilian men, women, children and the elderly killed, countless more wounded, and hundreds of thousands deprived of adequate food and medical care, resulting in more deaths," the report said.

Government officials did not immediately respond to calls for comment. In the past, the government has denied committing war crimes and refused calls to establish international investigations into its conduct of the war, saying it would conduct its own probe into its conduct. On Monday, the government established a "Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission" to look into the final phase of the war.

The conflict ended a year ago after government forces overran the Tamil Tigers' stronghold in the north, destroying their dream of establishing an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority.

The U.N. has said between 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed in the conflict, but the International Crisis Group report suggests the number of those killed is far higher than previous estimates.

Analyzing population data from the war zone and comparing it with the number of civilians who eventually escaped, the report says it is difficult to arrive at a number of the killed or missing from the final months of the war that is lower than 30,000, and a plausible argument could be made that 75,000 civilians are unaccounted for.

"Crisis Group also believes that all but a small portion of these deaths were due to government fire," the report said.

The report said top government and military leaders could be responsible for war crimes and recommended and independent, international inquiry be established under the auspices of the U.N.

The group also accused the Tamil Tiger rebels of holding the civilians as virtual hostages in the area and shooting those who tried to escape. But since the rebel leadership was decimated at the end of the war there is no one to answer for those charges.

The report also criticized the United Nation's conduct during the conflict, its withdrawal from the conflict zone at government insistence in 2008, "its ineffectual attempts to push for a cease-fire and its involvement in Sri Lankan government internment camps," where nearly 300,000 displaced people were detained at the end of the war.