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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?

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"They were working for the LTTE," says police spokesman Ranjith Gunasekara, when asked what crime the men had committed. "We have to wait and see. We have to finish our inquiries."

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While the doctors have claimed that they lied under duress from the LTTE, it will be for the courts to rule if this mitigates their actions, says Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona. He dismissed claims that they had been coerced to change their stories.

The doctors got the undivided attention of Sri Lanka's media, which has faced intense pressure to follow the government's line on war coverage. But ethnic divisions are likely to shape responses to their statements, says Jehan Perera, director of the National Peace Council, a nonprofit in Colombo.

"I think most Sinhalese will be comfortable with this level of explanation, and most Tamils will be extremely skeptical," he says.

Few outsiders have visited site of LTTE's last stand

Since the government's victory, which was greeted rapturously by many Sri Lankans, particularly among the majority Sinhalese, few outsiders have visited the area where the LTTE made its final stand. The Tigers once controlled a large swath of the northeast and ran a breakaway mini-state.

In May, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon flew by helicopter over the war zone. The London Times later published photos shot overhead that it said revealed mass graves dug near abandoned shelters along a tiny strip of coastal land. It also identified craters from artillery shelling that it blamed on the military and cited UN sources as putting the final death toll over 20,000.

Sri Lankan officials have denied these and other similar claims. Speaking from Egypt, where leaders are gathering for a Non Aligned Movement summit next week, Mr. Kohona said he saw no need for an independent investigation into the war. "I don't see any confusion [over the death toll]," he says.

Political analysts say there is little appetite in Western capitals to push for an international inquiry into allegations of war crimes by both sides. The LTTE was widely accused of using civilians as human shields and press-ganging minors into battle as its forces were overwhelmed by the military.

Attention in Sri Lanka has instead turned to post-conflict rebuilding and the fate of more than 280,000 Tamil civilians held in overcrowded refugee camps. Their detention, while also controversial, is seen as safer ground for civil society groups trying to hold authorities to account.

"There's a lot of reluctance on the part of the government to investigate the past. And it's dangerous for people to ask for that investigation," says Mr. Perera.

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