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'Civilian toll in Lanka could have been worse'

June 01, 2009 09:28 IST

The United Nations believes that the civilian death toll in the final war between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam might have been exaggerated in the media reports and were 'not necessarily correct'.

Their comments come in the wake of a report by British newspaper The Times, which claimed that 20,000 civilians were killed in Sri Lankan army shelling, and cited  confidential UN documents as the source of the shocking figure.

The paper further alleged that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who had known about the death toll a week before the report was published, chose to keep quiet about it. Amnesty International has now demanded a probe into the alleged killings.

But the UN "does not think that the figure quoted in the press is necessarily correct," highly-placed sources told, adding that though the media had quoted the world body as the source for the shocking figure, the UN had no idea where the figure had come from.

The sources stressed that according to information received from organisations like International Committee of the Red Cross, the casualty figure was not more than 7,000.

"We are not sure of anything more than that. But it could have been much worse and this was not an unacceptably high civilian causality, given the situation," the sources added.

They also pointed out that the Sri Lankan government seems to be more interested in working with India at present rather than the UN, to achieve political reconciliation and reconstruction in the island nation following the defeat of the LTTE.

This was the inference drawn by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his team of senior officials, after visiting Sri Lanka last week and speaking to President Mahindra Rajapaksa as well as other ministers and officials, sources said.

The primary mission of the visit was to find out how to aid the country's relief and reconstruction efforts and to gauge the impact of the military operation against LTTE on the civilian population. The operation has entailed the displacement of over 250,000 people from the conflict zones.

During his visit to Colombo, the Secretary-General had stressed the need to protect the well-being of citizens, who had been displaced in the fighting between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers.

"The UN was concerned about the military operation against the LTTE in terms of civilian causalities because the LTTE was holding an enormous number of people as hostages and there was the danger of a bloodbath, and that's why the UN officials were sent to Sri Lanka," the sources said.

Apparently, Colombo has told the UN that it has been very careful in its operation against the LTTE.

But in this kind of operation, despite caution, 'it is quite likely' that there might have been large-scale causalities, said sources.

"They (the army) have breached some of the embankments that the LTTE has set up and as a result, more than 200,000 people were able to move out. If those people had stayed in there, they would have become victims. So, they were able to save many lives," the sources said.

While in Sri Lanka, the UN Secretary-General had visited the Manik Farm campsite for displaced persons. The UN team felt that while a lot has been done in terms of providing basic services, a lot of the tents were overcrowded, and there was still a long way to go in terms of providing adequate shelter to the displaced population.

John Holmes, under-secretary General for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, had accompanied Ban. At a press conference last week, he explained that parts of the camp still needed water and sanitation facilities "The basic conditions of life are being met, but there's quite a lot of progress to go," he said.

In response to a question, Holmes said he was unaware about media reports of citizens being forcibly rounded up 'in the style of concentration camps,' but was quick to add that as government forces advanced into the Vanni district with the LTTE, the surrounding population was forced to retreat.  As a result, it was "possible that some of the people who were not actually in the conflict zone were encouraged or taken to the camps," he admitted.

Holmes said that in his talks with the Sri Lankan authorities, the Secretary-General had raised the issues of resettlement, reconstruction and reintegration, which would require political reconciliation between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese and Tamil communities.

The meeting between the Secretary-General, President Rajapaksa and other senior Sri Lankan officials had taken place in the city of Kandy, where Ban had also raised the issue of complete and unhindered access to the camps.

He said discussions on those and other well-known issues -- such as the overly military nature of camps, the need for more rapid progress in areas like screening and registration, more freedom of movement, and family reunification -- would continue for some time.

B Lynn Pasco, under-secretary-General for political affairs, who also briefed reporters at the UN headquarters, observed, "It's important for all parts of the Sri Lankan society to be integrated together, to be working together, as we move into the future."

Asked how the United Nations planned to ensure accountability for possible human rights abuses in the island nation, Pascoe stressed the importance of moving at a deliberate pace.

"Obviously, the Human Rights Council has talked on this. (United Nations Human Rights Commissioner) Navi Pillay has raised the question. But we're not at the stage where we can say how this process will go forward," he said.

"Besides other things, the UN officials of course were there to remind the Sri Lankan authorities that they will have to adhere to certain norms of international humanitarian principles," the sources told this correspondent.

Suman Guha Mozumder