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Sri Lankan doctors recant reports of civilian deaths

Speaking at a defense ministry facility, they said they were coerced by the rebel Tamil Tigers to exaggerate the impact of Sri Lanka’s final offensive. Are they telling the truth now?

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 10, 2009

Bangkok, Thailand

Over two months after the bloody finale of Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war, a lingering row over civilian casualties continues to roil a fractured society.

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Sri Lankan authorities have insisted that their final military push against Tamil Tiger rebels didn't target hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped behind enemy lines. But aid workers, church officials, and government doctors reported that heavy shelling had caused mass casualties. A preliminary United Nations report estimated that 7,000 had died between January and May.

On Wednesday, however, a group of doctors who had provided dramatic firsthand accounts of civilian suffering in the war zone publicly recanted their reports. At a press conference in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, the five ethnic-Tamil doctors said rebels had forced them to lie about the number of dead and wounded, and said that the actual death toll was a fraction of that counted by the UN.

"The figures were exaggerated due to pressure from the LTTE," said V. Shanmugarajah, one of the doctors, referring to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Their confession seems unlikely to staunch the controversy, though.

Concern that doctors are being used to spin message

The doctors have been held in police custody since fleeing the fighting in May, just days before the LTTE's defeat. As a result, human rights groups say that their statements may not be voluntary. The doctors denied Wednesday they spoke under pressure, though they appeared nervous at times, according to news reports. The event was held at a defense ministry facility.

Some of their retractions also contradict accounts by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which was the only foreign organization left in the war zone. The ICRC said earlier this week that it was scaling down operations in the northeast in response to a government demand.

In one incident in February, artillery apparently fired from government positions hit a hospital in the war zone and killed several patients. A doctor denied Wednesday that the attack happened.

"From the time the doctors were detained, the fear was that they would be used exactly this way," Sam Zarifi, the Asia-Pacific director of Amnesty International, said in a statement.

Sri Lanka investigating doctors' LTTE ties

Western diplomats have quietly been asking authorities to release the doctors, whose courage under fire was praised by the UN's humanitarian chief, John Holmes. On Wednesday, the doctors expressed optimism that they might be freed. But Sri Lanka's police said they were still under investigation.