- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) - Sri Lanka on Saturday rejected U.N. allegations it may have committed war crimes and vowed there would be no cease-fire in its drive to capture a shrinking rebel enclave and end the island’s 25-year-old civil war.

A report Friday from U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said government forces and Tamil rebels also warned that civilian casualties could reach “catastrophic” proportions if the two sides do not suspend fighting.

Pillay said the situation was becoming desperate and called for a halt in the fighting.

Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe questioned charges in the report that 2,800 civilians had died in recent weeks as the military has pushed into the last remaining area held by the Tamil Tigers.

“It is very, very unprofessional to rely on such unsubstantiated figures. What is dismaying to us is the figures correspond to the figures put forward by (the pro-rebel Web site) TamilNet and LTTE front groups,” Samarsinghe told a news conference, referring to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

But Pillay said “a range of credible sources” showed that more than 2,800 civilians had been killed and more than 7,000 wounded since Jan. 20.

Both figures are higher than previous estimates, and Pillay said 150,000 to 180,000 people remain trapped in the rebel area _ estimated at 13.5 square miles (35 square kilometers) _ on Sri Lanka’s northeast coast.

Pillay also said the army has repeatedly shelled inside the “no-fire” zones _ an allegation that Samarsinghe denied.

“The world today is ever sensitive about such acts that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Pillay said.

Samarasinghe said Pillay’s report failed to tell the rebels to let civilians in the area leave. The government accuses the Tamil Tigers of using civilians as human shields in a desperate attempt to avoid defeat.

“If the high commissioner for human rights is concerned about these civilians, then the high commissioner must call on the LTTE to let them go,” he said.

In the latest fighting, the military said in a statement Saturday that 18 rebel bodies had been recovered in the north and that 58 civilians had escaped from the Tamil Tigers.

Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona said a cease-fire would “breathe life into the terrorists” by giving the rebels time to recover from a series of devastating defeats that have seen them lose vast amounts of territory and fighters.

Rebel officials could not be reached. Most communication to the north has been severed, and accounts of the fighting cannot be verified because independent journalists are barred from the war zone.

Also on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called President Mahinda Rajapaksa to express “deep U.S. concern” over deteriorating conditions and increasing loss of life in the safe zones, a State Department statement said.

It said Clinton told Rajapaksa his soldiers should not fire into the civilian areas.

Clinton also condemned the rebels for using civilians as shields against government attacks and shooting civilians who try to leave.

The United States has offered immediate and post-conflict reconstruction aid to Sri Lanka.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have fought since 1983 for an independent state for the Tamil minority, which suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

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