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INTERVIEW - U.N. investigator wants Sri Lanka executions probe

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A full international investigation is needed to determine whether Sri Lankan soldiers summarily executed Tamil rebels in violation of international law, a U.N. investigator said on Tuesday.

File photo of Philip Alston in Bogota June 18, 2009. A full international investigation is needed to determine whether Sri Lankan soldiers summarily executed Tamil rebels in violation of international law, Alston, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Jose Miguel Gomez/Files

“Any government has a clear obligation to have a very thorough investigation in response to an allegation of this type,” Philip Alston, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, told Reuters in an interview.

His comments came in reaction to video footage aired last week by Britain’s Channel 4 television, which it said showed Sri Lankan forces executing a group of unarmed, naked, bound and blindfolded Tamils during the army’s final assault to smash Tamil Tiger rebels earlier this year.

The Sri Lankan government has dismissed the video as fake, and Alston acknowledged there was no certainty it was authentic. Channel 4 said it got the footage from a group called Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka.

“There’s nothing on the surface to indicate that it is not authentic and, if that’s the case, it would raise very grave concerns,” Alston said.

Although he said it was incumbent that Sri Lanka begin an investigation, Alston noted that its government had a poor record investigating such cases.

“Given the not-very-happy record of such investigations in the past, it would in my view be desirable that this be an international investigation, which would ensure its independence and impartiality,” Alston said, adding that an investigation would ideally be under U.N. auspices.

U.N. VOICES “UTMOST CONCERN”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has not called for an investigation, though a spokeswoman for the world body indicated on Monday that he was taking the issue seriously.

“We have always viewed with utmost concern the reports and information received from various sources of serious human rights violations, including those related to war crimes,” spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.

She added that the Channel 4 video was “no exception”.

Sri Lanka’s government has repeatedly denied that its forces committed war crimes or human rights violations during the last months of its 25-year war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), whom it defeated in May.

U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes has said several thousand civilians were killed during the final phase of the war, when the LTTE retreated to a narrow strip of coast in northeastern Sri Lanka.

The rebels brought hundreds of thousands of Tamils, whom U.N. officials said were used as human shields.

U.N. and Western officials accused Sri Lanka of using heavy artillery to shell areas that it knew were heavily populated with civilians, killing many of them in the process. Colombo denied the allegation.

Alston said he has made several requests to visit Sri Lanka in recent months.

He added that an investigation of the abuses was important for Sri Lanka in the post-war period.

“Unless you have accountability, it’s hard to have reconciliation (with the Tamil minority), which is what the government has said is its goal,” Alston said.

Hundreds of thousands of Tamils remain in refugee camps in northeastern Sri Lanka and are not allowed to return home as the government tries to root out remaining LTTE members.

Sri Lankan officials have told Reuters that the government’s target of letting 80 percent of the refugees go home by the end of the year will most likely not be met.

The Channel 4 video footage can be seen here: (here)

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