By Simon Gardner
COLOMBO, Oct 24 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers on Wednesday accused the military of abusing conventions on the treatment of war dead but the military denied it had behaved wrongly and said photos showing naked bodies had been doctored.
The Defence Ministry on Tuesday posted pictures on its Web site of clothed rebels slain in the Tigers’ biggest ever suicide operation sprawled on tarmac, some charred, one with eyes wide-open and one with a gaping hole in his head.
Witnesses said that after the photos were taken some of the dead were stripped, however, and their naked bodies piled into the back of a tractor trailer to be driven to a mortuary in the northern district of Anuradhapura.
Several journalists saw the bodies on the way to the mortuary after hearing rumours, and the photographs were widely circulated on Web sites on Tuesday and published in one local newspaper on Wednesday.
The military denied any of the bodies were naked, and said the pictures had been doctored.
"Somebody has taken (those photographs) to tarnish the image of the (armed forces)," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said on Wednesday, without specifying who. "We are professional soldiers. We do not want to do (things) like that.
"I can assure you we wrapped all those bodies in black polythene bags ... and sent it to the hospital," he added. "Some photographer who is interested in tarnishing the image of the army has done this purposely."
"It’s not a real photo. It’s a made up one."
The Tigers sent out a statement on Wednesday condemning the incident as a violation of the Geneva Convention.
"They have broken not only the Geneva Convention, but also norms observed by decent militaries all over the world," Tiger military spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiraiyan said by telephone from the northern rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi.
The rebels say 21 Tiger suicide fighters were killed in Monday’s pre-dawn assault.
Fourteen military personnel were killed, and the government said on Wednesday eight aircraft, including helicopters, a spy plane and training aircraft were destroyed -- far more damage than the military initially reported.
Witnesses said the tractor trailers, used normally to collect garbage, were accompanied by military personnel and stopped for several minutes at a junction where a crowd of dozens of people had gathered in the rain as word of the trip to the mortuary got around.
The hospital mortuary, where the bodies were being taken, was just 100 metres away. There was no traffic.
"The bodies were taken from the camp to the mortuary. One tractor trailer contained naked bodies, bodies in the other were in plastic bags," said a journalist known to Reuters who was at the scene and asked to remain unnamed for fear of retribution.
"I came to a spot along the route where people had congregated to wait for the bodies, and the tractors then came and stopped so the crowd could look," the journalist added.
Another journalist witness said: "There were some civilians and other journalists about 500 metres from the mortuary. Two tractors came, one with naked bodies and (the) other with black plastic bags. I presume those are the blown up bodies of suicide cadres."
Monday’s attack in the north, where renewed civil war is now concentrated after troops captured swathes of Tiger territory in the east of the island, comes after a series of clashes that have killed around 5,000 people since early 2006.
Nearly 70,000 people have been killed since the war began in 1983, and while the military has had the upper hand in recent months, analysts see no clear winner on the horizon and say the conflict could rumble on for years.