New Reports, Imagery Contradict Sri Lankan Government on Civilian No-Fire Zone

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 30, 2009

NORTHEASTERN COAST, Sri Lanka -- The strip of beach where tens of thousands of civilians huddled during the Sri Lankan military's decisive assault against the Tamil Tiger rebels this month shows clear signs of heavy artillery shelling, according to a helicopter inspection of the site by independent journalists, interviews with eyewitnesses, and specialists who have studied high-resolution satellite imagery from the war zone.

That evidence contradicts government assertions that areas of heavy civilian populations were no-fire zones that were deliberately spared during the final weeks of military assault that ended this island nation's quarter-century of civil war.

"We see a lot of images of destroyed structures and what look like circular shell craters and also, frankly, very large holes in the ground. If it was a shell, it must be a very large one to make 24-feet-wide craters," said Lars Bromley, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project, which was asked by human rights groups to study the satellite images.

A recent helicopter tour by journalists, the first permitted since the battles ended last week, revealed that the glistening beach where the Tamil Tigers made their last stand is now a scorched strip of devastation, filled with uprooted palm trees, holes blasted deep into the charred earth and a network of hastily dug trenches where civilians took shelter.

Thiru Kumarni, an elementary school principal, said he and a dozen of his students were pinned down in the trenches as the shelling raged. In an interview, he said he and the students held hands and fled from one trench to another for two weeks, trying to avoid the artillery rounds landing with sharp thuds in the soft, sandy ground.

"We didn't think we would live. Some students were too afraid to move. We had to beg them. We were running out of water," said Kumarni, his face gaunt as he spoke softly about his distress over three students he believed had died and six others who are missing. He hoped they were somewhere in the massive military-run refugee camp known as Manik Farms, where 220,000 civilians have taken shelter.

The Sri Lankan government has dismissed criticism of its actions as absurd and maintains that it did not shell civilians. Sri Lankan officials, in interviews, said they should be getting international praise, not punishment.

Sri Lanka's leaders say they are among the few in the world who can say they have successfully vanquished three decades of terrorism by military means. They argue in government newspapers and on billboards across the country that if the United States has the right to fight terrorism, Sri Lankans do not need or want lectures about how to conduct a war against domestic insurgents.

What precisely happened in the last weeks of the war is the subject of a growing number of international inquiries, even as Sri Lanka rejects those queries and continues to celebrate its victory. The government's decisive offensive against the rebels, conducted in an area strictly closed to reporters and other independent observers, also raises larger questions about the rights of nations to take military action against their people beyond the view of the rest of the world.

In Geneva on Wednesday, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution commending Sri Lanka on its victory and rejected calls by its human rights chief for an international investigation to determine whether Sri Lankan government forces or the Tamil rebels have committed war crimes.

"Establishing the facts is crucial to set the record straight regarding the conduct of all parties in the conflict," said Navanethem "Navi" Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights and former U.N. war crimes judge. "Victims and the survivors have a right to justice and remedies."

Britain's Times newspaper reported Friday that 20,000 civilians were killed in the government's final assault on the rebels. Sri Lankan officials strongly disputed that figure; they have repeatedly said no civilians were killed by government soldiers in the final weeks of fighting.

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