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UN 'failed' Sri Lanka war victims: report

Leaked review claims government strategy endangered civilians.

COLOMBO // The United Nations failed to protect civilians and halt rights abuses during the end of Sri Lanka's civil war, according to an internal review.

The leaked report said the UN did not make public that "a large majority" of deaths in the closing months of war in 2009 were caused by government shelling.

It also said that the Sri Lankan government's "stratagem of intimidation", including control of visas for crucial UN staff, prevented the UN from protecting civilians in the conflict zone.

Sri Lanka has faced severe international censure since its military campaign that crushed the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009, ending decades of bloody ethnic warfare on the island.

Rights groups say up to 40,000 civilians were killed by government forces in the last few months of fighting, and the Tigers have also been accused of using civilians as a human shield.

"There was no intimidation," Mahinda Samarasinghe, the plantations minister, said yesterday. "No such thing. How can you intimidate them? They don't get intimidated by anyone."

Mr Samarasinghe, who is also the country's human-rights envoy to the UN Human Rights Council, said he did not want to comment directly on the report but added that Colombo was willing to address any shortcomings it raised.

He said Colombo had a good rapport with humanitarian agencies, including UN workers and that they had held regular meetings during the war.

"I chaired those meetings ... and we addressed many issues and found answers. We worked closely with the UN and others."

The report said the UN withdrew from the island's north in September 2008 after Colombo warned it could not guarantee the safety of aid workers, allowing the military to carry out aerial bombardments that also hit civilians.

"I have not heard anyone say that we asked them to go out [of the conflict zone]," Mr Samarasinghe said.

Shortly after the government declared victory over the Tamil rebels, the Unicef spokesman in Sri Lanka, James Elder, was expelled over comments about the "unimaginable hell" suffered by children caught up in the fighting.

The report, which was leaked to the BBC, also criticises senior UN staff in Colombo who "did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility".

UN officials in Colombo declined to comment on the review.

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