The United Nations said today that the death toll from Sri Lanka's civil war was "unacceptably high" amid reports that 20,000 people were killed in the government's final onslaught against Tamil Tiger rebels. The UN Humanitarian Coordination Office (Ocha) refused to give figures but a spokeswoman said numbers cited by various media were based on "well-informed estimates" given in private briefings to member states to underscore its concern.
UN sources at various agencies in Geneva have acknowledged that they are under pressure over their statements on Sri Lanka, especially casualty figures. The British newspaper The Times reported that apart from confidential estimates of about 7,000 civilians who died up to the end of April, UN sources said the toll mounted thereafter with an average of 1,000 civilians killed daily until May 19. That would take the toll to 20,000 in the final stages of the conflict when the Sri Lankan military crushed Tamil Tiger rebels in heavy fighting in a sliver of land packed with thousands of civilians, according to the newspaper.
Elisabeth Byrs, an Ocha spokeswoman, said: "The UN has publicly and repeatedly said that the number of people killed in recent months has been unacceptably high and it has shared its estimates with the government as well as others concerned. "You have seen the figures that are mentioned. Obviously, what we have are well-informed estimates and not precise, verifiable numbers." "The point is the UN has not been shy about the scale of human suffering and civilian casualties. It has been ringing the alarm bells for a long time," she added.
The French newspaper Le Monde, cited UN sources as saying that the full figures were not made public to avoid damaging relations with Sri Lanka. The Tamil Tigers were accused of holding tens of thousands of civilians as human shields in recent weeks, while government troops were alleged to have indiscriminately shelled rebel-held areas packed with civilians. UN and Red Cross relief agencies are trying to gain full access to about 250,000 displaced people held in government-run camps in northeastern Sri Lanka.
On Thursday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, maintained her demand for an investigation into abuses allegedly carried out by both sides in Sri Lanka. The European Union also expressed regret at the failure to launch an investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched a campaign in 1972 to create a Tamil homeland in the Sinhalese-majority island. Much of its funding came from Tamils overseas.
Some 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed in the conflict up to the final onslaught on Tiger territory, according to a UN estimate. The Sri Lankan government insists the Tamil Tigers are to blame for any civilian casualties and has given no estimates for the number of non-combatants killed. *AFP