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Sri Lanka seeks delay in UN report into alleged war crimes

February 12, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — Urging international patience, Sri Lanka’s new government that won a surprise election victory last month called for a postponement in the publication of a U.N. investigation into allegations of war crimes committed during the island nation’s civil war.

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera spoke Wednesday ahead of a meeting Thursday with Secretary of State John Kerry, amid warming ties with Washington following early steps by the government to promote democracy in Sri Lanka and reconciliation.

The U.N. report is due in March. The investigation was authorized by a U.S.-backed resolution approved by the U.N. human rights council last year.

Thousands of civilians are suspected to have died in the final months of the war in 2009 when government forces crushed a quarter-century fight for an ethnic homeland by ethnic Tamil rebels.

Samaraweera said Sri Lanka will create a domestic mechanism within two months to probe allegations of rights violations and bring perpetrators to justice. He called for the U.N. report to be “held back,” perhaps until August. He said the U.N. findings could then be referred to the domestic mechanism for “necessary action.”

The previous government of Mahinda Rajapaksa presided over the battlefield victory but resisted international pressure to account for the dead, leading to the U.N. inquiry. That badly strained its relations with the United States and other Western nations.

“Unlike the previous government we are not in a state of denial, saying that such violations have not happened. We believe such violations have happened,” Samaraweera told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We are ready to ensure that those who have violated human rights in Sri Lanka will be brought to justice through such a mechanism.”

He said Sri Lanka would seek technical assistance for its domestic investigation from the U.N. and the Commonwealth — a grouping including Britain and former colonies. The government has invited the top U.N. human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, to visit Sri Lanka, he said.

The new government of President Maithripala Sirisena has eased restrictions on media and civil society that were imposed by the increasingly authoritarian Rajapaksa, but prosecuting wartime abuses remains a delicate issue that divides the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils.

Parliamentary elections are slated for June.

There is no accurate estimate as to how many people were killed in the war, but an earlier U.N. report said up to 40,000 civilians may have been killed in just the final months of the fighting.

The Sri Lankan soldiers have been accused of deliberately shelling civilians, and the rebels of holding civilians as human shields and killing those trying to escape.

Update hourly