Sri Lanka refutes UN casualty figures

Sri Lanka might be gaining the upper hand against the Tamil Tigers, but it now faces a diplomatic dispute.

BANGKOK, THAILAND – A diplomatic row is escalating over civilian casualties in Sri Lanka’s war with the Tamil Tigers. The two sides are in the midst of a military showdown in a coastal strip of jungle in the island's northeast corner.

Western nations are calling for a pause in the fighting to allow for the evacuation of up to 180,000 trapped people, but Sri Lanka is pushing back. In particular, the government is challenging the United Nation's assessment of suffering among this cornered population. The government was angered following a senior UN official's recent warning that both sides in the conflict may have committed war crimes.

Last week, the Monitor reported that UN documents attributed escalating deaths and injuries to Army shelling in a no-fire zone (see the Monitor's story here).

On an official visit to Thailand, Sri Lankan foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama wasted no time in refuting these claims. He said that he had called in the UN’s country coordinator in Sri Lanka to ask him to retract “unauthenticated, unreliable figures” on civilian casualties. The UN had been “misled on the figures,” Mr. Bogollagama told reporters.

“Here is where the UN coordinator agrees with me, that he can’t vouch for the reliability of the figures,” he said Thursday.

The United States has expressed concern over the actions of both sides in the conflict. A US envoy to the UN said the Sri Lankan government “must pay more attention to protecting the civilians in the conflict,” the Associated Press reported from New York (see the story here).

Bogollagama, who met Thursday with Thailand’s prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, to discuss security and economic ties, argues that government troops are doing everything possible to minimize casualties. He denied that long-range artillery was used against targets inside the no-fire zone, as the UN claimed.

“We have to look after the civilians because they are our civilians at the end of the day. The LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] are on the way out. But our people will remain part of the process, so why should we target them?” he said.

More than 52,000 civilians have now fled the fighting and are being housing in government camps. Bogollagama said international agencies were present in the camps and were able to gather first-hand accounts from the war zone. The Red Cross has evacuated thousands of wounded by boat from the zone and delivered food and drugs.

Bangkok has a walk-on role in the conflict. The LTTE have long bought and sold arms here and once built a rudimentary submarine in the Thai resort island of Phuket. A Sri Lankan diplomat said a key LTTE arms dealer in Thailand is believed to have escaped arrest in 2007 and may now be in Malaysia. Bogollagama said Thailand had agreed to keep an eye out for LTTE cadre.

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