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.
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.
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.
"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."
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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