Critics accuse Sri Lanka of using scorched earth tactics against Tamils

One year after Sri Lankan forces concluded their brutal endgame to a 26-year civil war against Tamil separatists.

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NEW YORK // One year after Sri Lankan forces concluded their brutal endgame to a 26-year civil war against Tamil separatists, rights groups accuse the government of failing to secure justice for the tens of thousands of civilians killed in the fighting. In a report this week, the International Crisis Group lambasted Sri Lankan forces for indiscriminately attacking civilian refuges, hospitals and aid depots during their final assault on the rebel Tamil Tigers from January to May last year.

The Brussels-based think tank accused the government of failing to investigate the alleged atrocities, and urged the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to launch his own investigation into the violations. "The scale of civilian deaths and suffering demands a response," said the group's president, Louise Arbour. "Future generations will demand to know what happened, and future peace in Sri Lanka requires some measure of justice."

The defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam last year ended a conflict that had claimed the lives of 100,000 since rebels began fighting for an independent homeland in 1983, complaining of oppression under a Sinhalese majority. The Tigers were accused of using child soldiers and human shields among myriad violations, but since their defeat by Sri Lankan security forces, allegations have centred on the military's excessive use of force during the final offensive.

Government troops are blamed for the deaths of between 7,000 and 20,000 civilians while indiscriminately shelling a "no-fire zone" as they encircled the rebel's final stronghold on a sandy strip of north-eastern Sri Lanka. At the time, Sir John Holmes, the UN's aid chief, called mass civilian deaths a "bloodbath on the beaches". The International Crisis Group's 54-page report describes tens of thousands of civilians killed and wounded, with "hundreds of thousands deprived of adequate food and medical care, resulting in more deaths".

Ever since he visited sprawling camps of displaced Tamils in northern Sri Lanka and witnessed pockmarked battlefields from a helicopter flyover last May, the UN chief, Mr Ban, has repeatedly urged the government to investigate alleged war crimes. But the UN has been criticised for not speaking out against an increasingly triumphalist and nationalistic government in Colombo. Security Council members only met informally in May in the basement of UN headquarters, with the veto-wielding China blocking any potential denunciation of Sri Lanka.

While the International Crisis Group said "much of the international community turned a blind eye to the violations when they were happening", other diplomats highlight the right of sovereign governments to stamp out terrorism within their borders. Emboldened by his victory in securing a substantial majority in January's elections, the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, criticised those "in Sri Lanka and abroad" who had condemned his handling of the final military offensive against the Tamil Tigers.

"The overwhelming mandate given in this election has given the answer to these critics," he said at the time. "The people of Sri Lanka ? have shown that they are now free of threats, free of fear, free of terrorism - and they have shown they support the measures which have freed them." The UN chief has since announced plans to form an expert panel to investigate violations by Sri Lanka's military, although this was quickly dismissed as an "unwarranted and uncalled for" intervention in a statement from Mr Rajapaksa's office.

This month, Mr Rajapaksa announced his own plans for a Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation, although the head of the committee has said the body lacks the legal powers needed to investigate rights abuses during the conflict. Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, said the body should fully "investigate serious allegations of violations" committed during the conflict and "identify those responsible", then make its findings public.

In its report, the crisis group said "the government has conclusively demonstrated its unwillingness to undertake genuine investigations of security force abuses and continues to deny any responsibility for civilian casualties". Another advocacy group, the New York-based Asia Society, noted that Sri Lanka's transition to peace and democracy remained precarious as the teardrop-shaped island nation celebrates one year since the end of the war this week.

Ahilan Kadirgamar, a fellow, said the president had increased his control over the courts and Sri Lanka's civil service and warned that the Sinhalese-led government still needs to forge "political settlement to address minority grievances".