UK urges Sri Lanka war crimes probe

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The Independent Online

Britain today renewed its calls for Sri Lanka to carry out an investigation into allegations of war crimes, following the broadcast on UK television of video footage apparently showing the summary execution of naked and bound prisoners.

The film, shown on Channel 4, reportedly shows "trophy videos" taken on mobile phones by Sri Lankan soldiers taking part in the military operation in 2009 to crush the Tamil Tiger insurgency and end a 25-year civil war.

The broadcast came as the Home Office prepared to deport some 40 Tamils to the south Asian island state, including five who claim that their safety has been put in danger after UK officials passed papers in their case to the authorities in Colombo.

Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said he was "shocked by the horrific scenes" in the Channel 4 film Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, which he said contained "convincing evidence of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law".

Mr Burt said the UK was ready to join the rest of the international community in pursuing "all options available" to put pressure on the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to take action.

The Channel 4 film was shown to the United Nations Human Rights Council in May. Presenter Jon Snow said it was "one of the most shocking films" the channel has ever produced.

It included footage of apparent extra-judicial killing of prisoners by Sri Lankan government forces, the aftermath of targeted shelling of civilian hospitals and the bodies of female Tamil fighters who appear to have been sexually assaulted. But it also examined atrocities carried out by the Tamil Tigers, including the use of human shields and a suicide bombing in a government centre for the displaced.

Sri Lanka's civil war ended in 2009, as the Colombo government claimed victory over Tamil Tiger insurgents after a bloody military operation which killed thousands of people and displaced many more.

A panel of experts convened by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reported earlier this year that it had found "credible allegations" of war crimes on both sides and said that a civilian death toll of 40,000 or more could not be ruled out.

In its annual human rights report for 2010, published in March, the Foreign Office voiced "concern" about continued human rights violations, disappearances, extra-judicial killings and arbitrary arrests in the country following the end of the war.

Responding to last night's film, Mr Burt said: "The recent UN Panel of Experts' report, this documentary and previously-authenticated Channel 4 footage constitute convincing evidence of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

"The whole of the international community will expect the Sri Lankans to give a serious and full response to this evidence.

"Since the end of the conflict the UK has called for an independent, thorough and credible investigation of the allegations that war crimes were committed during the hostilities and the UK Government expects to see progress by the end of the year. I reiterated this message to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister on June 14.

"If the Sri Lankan Government does not respond we will support the international community in revisiting all options available to press the Sri Lankan Government to fulfil its obligations.

"Unless this is done, Sri Lanka will not be able to move on, and the prospects for reconciliation between Sri Lanka's communities will be curtailed. It is of the greatest importance that this does not happen."

Channel 4 News highlighted the case of 40 Tamils being held at a detention centre at Heathrow Airport, who are due to be returned to Sri Lanka on a deportation flight tomorrow.

The programme quoted one of the asylum-seekers - who was not named - as saying he feared he would be killed if he was sent back.

His lawyer said that the provision of potentially incriminating documentation on his case to the Sri Lankan authorities amounted to a serious breach of confidentiality in contravention of UN guidelines and Home Office rules.

In a statement, Sri Lanka's High Commission in London said: "The government of Sri Lanka categorically denies the allegations that it has deliberately targeted its own civilians."

The military action to end the civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was a "humanitarian operation... to rescue its own people from the clutches of an unlawful group of terrorists", said the High Commission, adding that any allegations of abuse should be referred to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission set up by the Colombo government.

The High Commission went on: "The government of Sri Lanka is concerned about the distress the images in the Channel 4 film aired without any guarantee of their authenticity might have caused to the viewers, particularly to those belonging to different communities in Sri Lanka.

"This is an exercise which is carried out by a small section of international media at the behest of certain parties with vested interests and it caters only to the interests of separatist forces living outside Sri Lanka, the final objective of which is to push Sri Lanka back to war, by way of lacerating the wounds that the country is attempting to heal.

"The Channel 4 film has the potential to incite hatred amongst different communities in Sri Lanka, including future generations, and thereby adversely affect the ongoing national reconciliation process.

"The malicious allegations in the film regarding the conduct of the Sri Lankan army are in striking contrast to the standards maintained by the Sri Lankan army."