Asia Crisis

INTERVIEW-World may never know Sri Lanka death toll - UN

* Reported death toll of 20,000 based on unreliable data

* No apparent evidence for allegations of mass graves

UNITED NATIONS, May 29 (Reuters) - The world will probably never find out how many innocent civilians died during the bloody final phase of Sri Lanka's war against Tamil Tigers rebels, the U.N. humanitarian chief said on Friday.

The United Nations believes that anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 people died in what was one of Asia's longest modern wars, erupting in earnest in 1983 when Tamil Tiger rebels began to fight for a separate state for Sri Lanka's minority Tamils.

In the final months of the war, the civilian death rate rose alarmingly as government forces surrounded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who retreated to a tiny strip of coast in northeastern Sri Lanka, where the United Nations says they kept hundreds of thousands of civilians as human shields.

U.N. under-secretary-general John Holmes, who oversees the United Nations' many humanitarian operations, told Reuters in an interview that it was unclear how many died in the months before Sri Lanka declared victory over the LTTE on May 18.

He also disputed a death toll reported in The Times of London that cited a "U.N. source" to support an estimate that at least 20,000 people were killed during the months-long final siege.

"That figure has no status as far as we're concerned," Holmes said. "It may be right, it may be wrong, it may be far too high, it may even be too low. But we honestly don't know. We've always said an investigation would be a good idea."

He said it was based on an unofficial and unverified U.N. estimate of around 7,000 civilian deaths through the end of April and added on roughly 1,000 more per day after that.

Holmes said the initial figure of 7,000 deaths had been deemed far too questionable for official publication.

Those were "estimates based on the best evidence that we had, but that wasn't very good evidence because we weren't really present in the (battle zone) in any systematic way," Holmes said. "That's why we didn't publish them."


He said there would likely never be a reliable death toll.

"I fear we may (never know), because I don't know that the government would be prepared to cooperate with any inquiry," Holmes said. But there was no doubt "several thousand" civilians had died during the siege, he added.

During that siege, Holmes repeatedly criticized the government for shelling areas where civilians were trapped, warning that it could lead to a "bloodbath". He also criticized the LTTE for treating innocent civilians as hostages.

Both sides rejected the U.N. charges. Sri Lanka's U.N. mission did not return calls requesting comment.

The U.N. Human Rights Council decided this week not to investigate the civilian deaths in the war, a decision that human rights groups have described as disappointing.

British media reports also said that aerial photographs taken when a U.N. delegation flew over the former conflict zone last week showed evidence of mass graves.

Photos of those locations taken by a Reuters reporter traveling with the delegation showed no clear signs of mass graves, though some individual gravesites might be visible.

Holmes said the appearance of makeshift cemeteries was no surprise. "A lot of people were killed, several thousand, so you would expect to see a lot of graves there," he said.

In an editorial, The Times wrote that "the U.N. has no right to collude in suppressing the appalling evidence" of a government-executed massacre. This clearly annoyed Holmes.

"I resent this allegation that we've been colluding with the government in some way or not taking sufficient notice," he said. "We have been the ones drawing attention to this problem when the media weren't very interested several months ago." (Editing by Anthony Boadle)