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Sri Lanka defense minister disputes war crimes allegations

Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa [official profile] on Tuesday appeared before a government-backed commission [press release] investigating the events surrounding the island nation's civil war [JURIST news archive] and defended the actions of the government during the conflict with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) [JURIST news archive]. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), appointed [press release] in May by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa [official profile], has been criticized [HRW release] as a superficial attempt to stave off an international investigation into accusations of widespread and severe human rights abuses by government forces during the war. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of Mahinda Rajapksa, appeared before the commission and stated that the government took every effort to avoid civilian casualties. He also indicated that a major focus of the military campaign was providing humanitarian relief to regions of the country that had been under LTTE control. According to the secretary, the military risked higher casualties in order to allow humanitarian conveys into regions where fighting between the military and LTTE was heavy. Gotabaya Rajapaksa also argued that the UN and the international community were to blame [RTT report] for civilian casualties because they failed to ensure that the LTTE released civilians under their control.

International pressure on Sri Lanka to conduct a thorough investigation into the civil war continues to mount, despite the government-backed commission. In July, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon [official profile] called on the Sri Lankan Government [press release; JURIST report] to improve conditions around UN offices in Colombo after a UN announcement [press release; JURIST report] of the formation of an international panel to investigate human rights abuses during the war resulted in days of pro-government protests [JURIST report] near UN offices. Sri Lanka has faced numerous allegations of human rights violations originating from incidents that took place during the final months of the 30-year civil war. In May, Human Rights Watch [advocacy website] announced it had acquired new evidence [JURIST report] supporting allegations of war crimes. Also in May, the International Crisis Group [official website] accused Sri Lankan security forces of war crimes [JURIST report], claiming that the violence of the war escalated in January 2009, leaving thousands more dead than projected by the UN.

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