Sri Lanka disputes truth of documentary on alleged war crimes by its soldiers

Country denies claims that it targeted civilians while crushing Tamil Tiger rebels but said action would be taken if a British documentary's allegations of war crimes were true.

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COLOMBO // Sri Lanka denied yesterday that it targeted civilians while crushing Tamil Tiger rebels but said action would be taken if a British documentary's allegations of war crimes were true.

The Sri Lankan High Commission in London said images shown on the publicly owned Channel 4 on Tuesday had not been verified as genuine and the disturbing footage could incite hatred among Sri Lankan communities.

However, it added that a local panel known as the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was ready to take note of the claims and take remedial legal action.

"If the allegations levelled by Channel 4 or any other party are found to be genuine, the LLRC will take due note of all such cases and remedial measures will be taken by way of legal sanctions," the statement said.

There was no immediate comment from the government in Colombo yesterday, which was a religious holiday marking the arrival of Buddhism in the island 2,300 years ago.

The government's ministers have repeatedly denied all war crimes allegations.

The state-run Daily News repeated the defence ministry claim that Channel 4 footage was "fake" but said the government must show "rapid progress in meeting the just needs of the Tamil community".

The newspaper also called for a political solution to address grievances of the Tamil minority, which has accused successive governments in Sri Lanka since independence from Britain in 1948 of discrimination in jobs and education.

India, an ally of Sri Lanka, has also urged the Sinhalese-dominated government to move towards a power-sharing arrangement with Tamils to address the root causes of the island's ethnic conflict.

The privately owned Island newspaper said the Channel 4 documentary was aimed at bolstering the claims of defeated Tamil Tiger rebels and reviving their separatist demands.

"What is called for is not a probe into the unsubstantiated allegations of war crimes against Sri Lanka but a thorough investigation into the Channel 4 videos whose authenticity is in question," the pro-government Island said in an editorial.

Sri Lanka had previously insisted there would be no investigation because its troops had committed no war crimes while defeating the Tamil Tigers by May 2009.

The army chief Lieutenant General Jagath Jayasuriya this month offered to investigate any "specific allegations", but rejected the Channel 4 videos as fabrications aimed at discrediting his troops.

Sri Lanka has refused to allow a UN expert panel to visit the nation to look into allegations that troops ordered civilians into "no-fire zones" and then shelled them. The panel, however, reported in April that there were "credible allegations" that Sri Lankan troops had killed thousands of civilians.

The Channel 4 documentary, Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, contained footage of what it said were prisoner executions. It also showed the bodies of female Tamil fighters who appeared to have been sexually assaulted by government forces.

At the same time, the programme provided evidence to suggest that the Tamil Tiger fighters had also committed war crimes.

Two UN investigators have confirmed the video as authentic, but the Sri Lankan authorities maintain it is fake.

The 50-minute documentary included footage of the aftermath of the targeted shelling of civilian hospitals.

* Agence France-Presse