Sri Lankan minister admits army killed civilians

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A former Tamil Tiger leader who defected to become a Sri Lankan government minister has given the first official admission that significant numbers of civilians were killed during the final offensive against the rebels.
Friday, May 22nd, 2009
Karuna Amman

Former LTTE Col. Karuna Amman

In an exclusive interview with the Daily Telegraph, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, alias Colonel Karuna, said president Mahinda Rajapaksa had made a mistake when he claimed no-one died at the hands of the army.

His comments undermine the government's previous claims and will alert western diplomats gathering evidence on civilian deaths for a future war crimes case.

During his victory speech in the Sri Lankan Parliament on Tuesday, Mr Rajapaksa said his army had achieved a 'miracle' in winning the battle "without shedding the blood of civilians".

But according to Mr Muralitharan, the president was aware of what he called the "damage" and not accepting it had been a "mistake".

He said Tamil Tigers claims of 20,000 deaths were an overestimate but added: "There are casualties, and we have to appreciate the casualties because without them you can't rescue the people. They made a mistake. The president knows the damage."

He said he did not know the exact numbers, but according to the United Nations between 8,000 and 10,000 civilians died in the Sri Lankan army advance across the north of the island between January and May.

Some are believed to have been shot by Tamil Tiger fighters as they tried to flee the battle zone, while many died in army mortar attacks.

"I feel very sad for the people of the north. They are Tamil people and [the Tamil Tigers] did very bad things to them. When civilians tried to escape, including children, they were shot," he said.

Mr Muralitharan, now minister for constitutional affairs and national integration and vice-president of the ruling Sri Lankan Freedom Party, also challenged officials who earlier this week said more than a quarter of a million displaced civilians could be held in overcrowded camps for up to two years.

He called for them to be resettled quickly and said the wasted north of the island must be swiftly redeveloped to unify the country and help Tamils forget the past.

"There are a lot of landmines there, but after clearing, we can resettle. There's no need for two years, after one we can resettle," he said.

Mr Muralitharan said the north of the country had been destroyed by the war and now needed billions in international aid for redevelopment.

He said 95 per cent of buildings in three districts were destroyed and new schools, hospitals, roads, were needed while water, electricity and communications services would have to be restored. "The whole infrastructure needs completely rebuilding," he said.

His comments on the need to draw Tamils into a Sri Lankan future came amid new allegations that paramilitaries linked to the army were being used to pick out Tamil Tiger child soldiers in refugee camps. Some had been then been kidnapped for ransom, said the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

Mr Muralitharan was speaking shortly after he returned from identifying the dead body of his former leader, the once-feared Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Television footage had shown his corpse but there were questions over whether the body really was the rebel leader. Mr Muralitharan, who had served Prabhakaran for 20 years as his eastern commander, was sent to the battle scene to dispel doubts. "There is no doubt, it is his body. He was shot by the army," he said.

He said the Tamil Tiger leader was killed by a single shot to the head – the bullet had entered through the left side of his forehead and blown out the back of his skull.

He claimed they had been trying to escape with 18 fighters when the were confronted by Sri Lankan troops.

"They tried to escape into the jungle and crossed an army defence line. They scattered and they [the army] found him. They did not arrest him. He was with four people. They fired at the army and the army shot him. He was a coward leader," he said.

By Dean Nelson in Colombo

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© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2009