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Rights groups call for probe of Sri Lankan army abuses

New video evidence has emerged linking Sri Lanka's military to the execution of prisoners during the final hours of the country's decades-long civil war last year, international human rights groups said.

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA // New video evidence has emerged linking Sri Lanka's military to the execution of prisoners during the final hours of the country's decades-long civil war last year, two international human rights groups said today.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said the grisly content of a five-minute video clip aired by Britain's Channel 4 television last month warrants a United Nations investigation.

The video was an extension of a short clip aired by the station last year showing blindfolded, naked men being shot dead at close range. The latest video shows the naked body of a young woman with a blood-spattered face identified by Tamil media as "Isaippriya," a news reader with the Tamil Tiger rebel television station.

A dozen other men and women, some with hands tied behind their backs, also lay dead beside her.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said an acquaintance identified the body as Isaippriya. It said the video links the Sri Lankan army's 53rd division, which conducted the final battle with the boxed-in rebels on a small beach strip, with summary executions.

"This horrific new evidence demonstrates graphically that the Sri Lankan army engaged in summary executions of prisoners during the final days of fighting in May 2009," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"The government's failure to investigate these serious war crimes in the face of overwhelming evidence shows the need for an independent, international investigation," Mr Adams said.

Sri Lanka's government said it "categorically denies that the Channel 4 News TV video is authentic."

"It is no secret that the anti-Sri Lankan separatist lobby, which is behind these moves, live in the comforts mainly in the West, and have not contributed towards restoration of normality and livelihoods of the deprived people affected by the conflict," the Sri Lankan Embassy in London said in an earlier statement.

UN human rights investigator Philip Alston has said, however, the first video aired last year was authentic.

Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific programme director, said the Sri Lankan government's stance that the videos are fake has become increasingly difficult to defend.

"The video footage seen in full is extremely disturbing and includes what appears to be a number of naked male and female bodies, many of them blindfolded and bound, depicting what seems to be cold-blooded execution of prisoners. If true, this would constitute a war crime," said Mr Zarifi.

"An investigation must be undertaken to explore alleged war crimes by all sides in the conflict," he added.

Mr Adams also challenged the government's claims.

"Each time new evidence emerges of a wartime atrocity, the government's knee-jerk reaction is to claim that it's all part of some bizarre plot against it," he said. "How many more photos and videos need to emerge before the government recognises that it can't hide the truth forever?"

Amid calls for a war crimes probe, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, appointed a three-member panel to advise him how to ensure accountability. He said, however, it was not an investigative team.

The government has condemned Ban's move as an "unwarranted interference" in the country's sovereignty, and appointed its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. But rights group say the commission has no mandate to probe alleged crimes, and it is a move to deflect calls for an international inquiry.

More than 7,000 civilians were killed in the last five months of the conflict, according to the UN. An estimated 80,000 people died in the 25-year war.

The rebels, who once controlled a de facto state in the island nation's north, had been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for minority Tamils after decades of oppression by the Sinhalese majority.