Up to 40,000 civilians 'died in Sri Lanka offensive'

The bitter controversy surrounding the final stages of the Sri Lankan government’s operation to crush separatist rebels has been reopened after a former UN official claimed that up to 40,000 civilians may have been killed.





In the final stages of last year’s move to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the UN protested strongly about the number of Tamil civilians caught up in the fighting. Privately, officials estimated that between 8,000-10,000 lost their lives and that many more were wounded.

Now, Gordon Weiss, who until the end of last year was the UN’s spokesman in Colombo, has suggested the figure may be much higher. “A lot of civilians died inside the siege zone. I have heard anything between ten and forty thousand people and that’s from reliable sources who had a presence inside the zone,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “[The Sri Lankan authorities] repeated a number of things that were either intentionally misleading or were lies. One senior government civil servant remarked at the end of the war that the government insistence that the figures were very low was a ploy. It was a ploy to allow the government to get on with its business.”

Last night, the Sri Lankan government dismissed the claims. Lucien Rajakarunanayake, a senior presidential spokesman said: “All I can tell you is that [Mr Weiss] is unaware of the facts. The figures are a total exaggeration. The UN itself has given figures that are much lower than this.”

Precisely how many civilians were injured or wounded as Sri Lankan forces defeated the remnant of the LTTE fighters making a final stand in the north east of Sri Lanka, may never be known. At the time, the UN and other organisations claimed that civilians were being struck by ordinance fired by both sides. Testimony provided by Tamils who escaped from the war zone suggests that many civilians were used as human shields by the LTTE as government troops advanced.

Mr Weiss was last night unavailable to comment and the UN in Sri Lanka refused to discuss the claims of its former spokesman, believed to be writing a memoir of his experiences in Sri Lanka.

In the interview, the former spokesman also suggested there was a need to investigate allegations of possible war crimes. While there have been widespread calls for such an inquiry, including from some senior figures within the UN, the Sri Lankan authorities have refused such an undertaking. “I will not allow any investigation by the United Nations or any other country. There is nothing wrong happening in this country…Take it from me, we will not allow any investigation,” Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the country’s defence secretary and brother of the president, recently told an interviewer.

Indeed, the purported readiness of former army chief Sarath Fonseka to cooperate with such an inquiry has been cited by the government as one of the reasons he was arrested and placed in detention and will likely be placed before a court-martial. Mr Fonseka, who last month failed in his electoral challenge to Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had said allegations about war could be investigated. The defence secretary said of Mr Fonseka’s undertaking: “He simply cannot do that. For one thing it is a lie.”

Yesterday, hundreds of lawyers marched through Colombo to protest against Mr Fonseka’s continued detention. They gathered near the country’s Supreme Court which admitted a petition filed by the former general’s wife that claimed his detention by the military police was illegal. The court has given the government four weeks to reply.

Such a date would be less than a month before parliamentary that Mr Fonseka has intended to contest. The government has not yet specified which charges it wishes to bring against him, but has repeatedly claimed he was plotting a coup – something he denied.

Meanwhile, the US and Norway denied claims made by the government that they had bankrolled Mr Fonseka’s campaign. In a statement, the US Embassy in Colombo said: “The United States backed no candidate but strongly supported a free, fair, and credible democratic process.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - An outstanding senior opportunity for...

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower