August 17, 2010 / 1:40 PM / 8 years ago

Sri Lanka defends war conduct, slams rebel "human shields"

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka said Tuesday the army did all it could to avoid civilian casualties during the war with Tamil rebels and blamed the United Nations for failing to halt the rebels’ use of civilians as human shields.

Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who led the army to victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) last year, justified the troops’ conduct in the final days of the fighting.

Speaking about civilian deaths, into which Western countries and the United Nations had called for an independent probe, Rajapaksa said the government fought with a zero-casualty policy among civilians and most of those killed in the rebel-held area were separatists.

“Nobody talks (about) how you can identify civilian casualties from combatants. It was very difficult to identify civilian casualties,” he said. “There is video evidence how the LTTE were fighting in civilian clothes and how they were changing uniform to civilian clothes when they were injured.”

The war prompted repeated accusations of human rights violations by both sides. Allegations by rights groups that thousands of civilians died just before the war ended amplified that criticism.

Rajapaksa, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother, was testifying before the state-appointed Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation, focussing on the final phase leading to the surrender of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009.

He blamed the United Nations and international community for not pressing the LTTE to release civilians who he said had been used as human shields since the war began.

“They could have done much more to force LTTE to release the people,” he said. “Unfortunately it was the other way around, pressurising the government and president to cease the operation.”

Political analysts and rights groups have questioned the credibility of the commission. Some analysts say it was set up to divert the U.N. war crimes probe and pacify Western nations.

Over the weekend, Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils complained of a number of human rights violations. Witnesses told the commission of loved ones taken away by unidentified gangs and by the military, never to be heard of again.

Sri Lanka has criticised the U.N. war crimes panel, appointed as to advise Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, on “accountability issues” and accuses the West of applying double standards.

Writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Nick Macfie

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