Sri Lanka doctors who gave civilian death figures recant

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lankan government doctors who gave civilian casualty figures to the media in the final months of the island nation’s 25-year war recanted on Wednesday after spending weeks under arrest.

Tamil civilians stand in line to collect water in the Manik Farm refugee camp located on the outskirts of northern Sri Lankan town of Vavuniya May 26, 2009. REUTERS/David Gray

The doctors’ statements that thousands were being killed raised diplomatic pressure on Sri Lanka to slow its assault in the final phase, fuelled a hotly contested propaganda duel and prompted Western calls for a war crimes probe.

Five doctors now in the custody of the Criminal Investigation Department said they were under pressure from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists to give out exaggerated figures of people killed in military shelling.

“The LTTE threatened doctors to give information to the outside and sometimes they came with a list of numbers,” Dr. Thangarajha Sathyamoorthi told reporters.

Sathyamoorthi and four other colleagues now under arrest addressed journalists at the Defence Ministry’s Media Centre for National Security, which provides information to the press.

They denied they were under military pressure to recant, and said that less than 1,000 civilians died from late January to the end of the war on May 18.

The doctors were on the government payroll while serving in the war zone, but their personal safety was at the whim of Tamil Tigers.

The government always denied intentionally shelling civilians and rescued more than 100,000 whom the Tigers held in the battlezone by force.

“The majority of the people were killed and injured in crossfire and when people were trying to come into the army-controlled area. But we were ordered to exaggerate the figures,” said Dr. V. Shanmugarajah, a former LTTE fighter.

“Totally there were around 350-400 people killed from April 15 to May 15,” said another doctor, Thurairajah Varatharaja. He said another 300-350 civilians were killed and 600-650 were injured from late January to April 15.

Another doctor in custody said he was caught by the rebels while trying to escape and was beaten up and jailed.

The United Nations said in May the conflict had killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people since erupting into civil war in 1983.

That toll included unofficial and unverified tallies showing 7,000 civilian deaths since January. Diplomats put the figure between 11,000 and 13,000.

The military has said it killed 22,000 LTTE fighters during its 34-month offensive to end the quarter century civil war, which was one of Asia’s longest modern wars.

The United Nations warned in an internal briefing document in March that civilians could be killed either by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) trying to manufacture a slaughter to blame the government, or in an indiscriminate military advance.

Getting a clear picture of events in the war zone was next to impossible, as it was generally closed to outsiders and those within were not fully independent of pressure that was often applied at gunpoint.

On May 18 the military declared total victory over the LTTE, which had fought an all-out civil war since 1983 to create a separate state for minority Tamils in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.