COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lankan military investigators said on Friday that the army did not shell civilians as it crushed a Tamil rebellion, refuting international allegations of human rights atrocities.
Rights groups say the Sri Lankan military killed thousands of ethnic minority Tamil civilians in the shrinking territory held by rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) just before their defeat in May 2009.
An expert panel set up by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said the army committed large-scale abuses and as many as 40,000 civilians were killed in the last months of the conflict.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government has rejected the allegations and says its forces never targeted civilians.
It nevertheless last year ordered a military court of inquiry to investigate allegations made in a documentary on British television that the army targeted civilians with shelling, causing heavy casualties.
The court of inquiry on Friday refuted the accusations, instead blaming the Tamil Tiger rebels for the atrocities.
"From the testimony presented, the court of inquiry concluded that the instances of shelling ... were not caused by the Sri Lankan army and civilian casualties might have occurred due to unlawful acts by the LTTE," military spokesman Ruwan Wanigasooriya said in a statement.
"These acts include targeting civilians fleeing to the safety of army-held areas and their likely routes of escape and the dropping of artillery rounds, fired by ill-trained LTTE gunners, on civilian areas."
The military campaign was conducted "strictly in accordance with the 'zero civilian casualty' directive", the statement said
The investigators also said the rebels forced children and elderly people to fight in their ranks.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called on Wednesday for Sri Lankan authorities to allow international experts in criminal and forensic investigations to help resolve outstanding wartime crimes and end impunity.
Sri Lanka has only committed to implement some of the recommendations of its own official investigation into the three-decade civil war, known as the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, issued in late 2011, her report said.
The United States is expected to sponsor a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council next month urging Sri Lanka to implement the commission's recommendations, which called for the prosecution of soldiers suspected of killing civilians.
Reporting by Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez; Editing by Pravin Char