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Government takes first count of civilian war deaths
COLOMBO | Sri Lanka said Thursday that it was counting on its own how many civilians were slain at the end of its bloody civil war to counter claims that tens of thousands were killed and fend off international calls for a war-crimes probe.
Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa also acknowledged for the first time that soldiers may have committed unspecified “crimes.” He promised to investigate and punish them.
Both the count of the killed and the admission of misconduct are a major shift for a government that had sworn its soldiers were beyond reproach and had insisted for more than two years that not a single civilian was killed by its forces during the final stages of the war.
Mr. Rajapaksa’s speech to a conference on postwar ethnic reconciliation is the government’s latest attempt to show it is taking action on its own and blunt the calls for outside investigations into the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.
Mr. Rajapaksa said the census department’s count, which is near completion and will be released soon, shows a very small number of civilians died because of military action.
He said people who died due to natural causes or accidents, as well as those who fled the country illegally, died fighting for the rebels or were killed by the rebels, also were counted in order to reconcile the number of people unaccounted for.
A U.N. report released in April said tens of thousands of civilians may have been killed in the last months of the decades-long war that a final government offensive ended in May 2009.
“Initial reports as stated by the district sub-governor indicate that an airstrike carried out by the international forces in Siacha village in Zhari district killed seven persons, including six children and injured another two young girls,” a statement from the presidential palace said.
“President Karzai was saddened when he heard the news and designated a team to fully investigate the incident.”
The governor of Zhari district, Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi, contacted by Agence France-Presse, said the strike was aimed at Taliban fighters planting roadside mines in the area but missed its target and hit residential areas nearby.
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