October 26, 2009 / 2:29 PM / 10 years ago

Sri Lanka to probe U.S. charges of possible war crimes

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s president will appoint a home-grown committee to probe a U.S. State Department report of possible war crimes at the end of Sri Lanka’s 25-year war against the Tamil Tigers, the government said on Monday.

A soldier stands next to two internally displaced ethnic Sri Lankan Tamils as they wait to go home at Kathankulam village in Mannar, 230 kilometers (144 miles) north of Colombo, October 22, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

Sri Lanka is facing heavy Western pressure over its human rights record, which the government blames on members of the Tamil diaspora who have settled in European countries or the United States and are angry the Tigers were beaten.

The United States issued a report on Thursday detailing possible atrocities by both government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the final battle of the 25-year war, and urged Sri Lanka to investigate the allegations.

“The president had decided to appoint a home-grown committee, to look into this report and give him recommendations,” Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told a news conference. Sri Lanka had already rejected the report as unsubstantiated.

The decision to appoint a local panel is unlikely to satisfy the West, given Sri Lanka’s long history of inquiries into rights abuse that have largely failed to hold anyone accountable.

A probe into the massacre of 17 aid workers in 2006 blamed on security forces was wound up prematurely.

Sri Lanka, with the backing of allies China and Russia, fought off Western criticism and calls to halt its offensive earlier this year. It has been adamant that its prosecution of the war was an internal matter not subject to outside scrutiny.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, during an official visit to Colombo on Monday, signaled Moscow’s continued backing.

“The government of Sri Lanka is fully capable using its own legal system to resolve any complaints which might emerge,” Lavrov told reporters. “I don’t believe that we should really discuss any agreement of procedures internationally.”

Days after Sri Lanka declared the war over, the U.N. Human Rights council passed a resolution praising its victory with the backing of China, Russia and India, which defeated a European-backed draft critical of how it handled the war.

On Friday, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has suggested that an external inquiry similar to the one that looked at fighting in Gaza may need to be carried out to determine what happened in Sri Lanka.

The European Union is also considering whether to withdraw a trade preference that helps Sri Lanka’s top export, garments, after finding it failed to adhere to a number of rights conventions required under the trade scheme.

The State Department report, requested by Congress, recounted allegations of government shelling of civilians during the early months of 2009 and killing of LTTE fighters who had surrendered.

It also accused the Tigers, who were listed as a terrorist organization by more than 30 countries, of recruiting children to fight and keeping thousands of Tamils as human shields by killing those who tried to flee.

Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Bryson Hull and Nick Macfie

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