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U.N.'s Arbour warns over end of Sri Lanka truce

High Commissioner on Human Rights Louise Arbour addresses a news conference on a year-long initiative to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Human Rights Declaration at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva December 10, 2007. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

GENEVA (Reuters) - The Sri Lankan government’s move to scrap a six-year ceasefire with rebels could trigger renewed fighting that could have a devastating effect on rights of civilians, the U.N.’s top human rights official said on Tuesday.

The government’s move to annul the ceasefire, which technically expires on Wednesday but degenerated on the ground into renewed war in 2006, has shocked the international community and is seen as ruining any hopes of resurrecting peace talks soon.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour warned both Sri Lankan government forces and Tamil Tiger rebel fighters that they were obliged under international law to protect civilian lives and could be prosecuted if they did not.

“An intensification of hostilities will likely have a devastating effect on the human rights of many Sri Lankans from all communities,” said Arbour, a former U.N. war crimes prosecutor and Canadian Supreme Court judge, in a statement.

She said international law prohibited all sides in the decades-long Sri Lankan conflict from committing unlawful killings or torture, arbitrary detention, recruiting or deploying child soldiers, and forcing people out of their homes.

“Violations of these rules by any party could entail individual criminal responsibility under international criminal law, including by those in positions of command,” Arbour said.

Arbour, in a visit to Sri Lanka last October, stressed the need for independent reporting on the human rights situation in the country.

An estimated 70,000 people have been killed since war erupted between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan government in 1983. The rebels are fighting for an independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

The government last week rejected an offer from the Tigers to abide by the terms of their ceasefire and vowed instead to push on with a military campaign to crush the rebels.

Reporting by Laura MacInnis; Editing by Richard Balmforth