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Mass grave unearthed in Sri Lanka’s former war zone

Majority of remains thought to be female reporter and AFP, Colombo
Sri Lanka

March 3, 2014

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Another unmarked mass grave has been found in Sri Lanka's former war zone, police said on Saturday, as Colombo braced for further censure at a UN human rights forum this week.

A family on Friday stumbled upon nine bodies buried in the garden of their home in the district of Mullaitivu, where the final battles of the island's protracted ethnic war were fought in May 2009.

"Remains of nine people had been found so far and the skeletal remains were taken for analysis by the judicial medical officer in the area," said police spokesman Ajith Rohana.

“My neighbor was clearing her garden with a tractor so she could build a new house, and then she found a human skull and some bones wrapped in a mat,” said a Tamil resident of Puthukkudiririppu in the northern district of Mullaittivu.

“Looking at these human remains my neighbor got frightened and immediately stopped working and informed the government officer in the village,” she said.

She added that from the partially decomposed clothing she believed that “most of the remains were from females”.

This latest discovery comes as a UN Human Rights Council session commences today in Geneva where Sri Lanka faces the third US-led resolution in as many years criticizing Colombo for its alleged failure to probe war crimes.

Last month, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Australia accused Sri Lankan authorities of exhuming mass graves and destroying evidence of civilian killings, a charge denied by Colombo.

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapakse has said he is committed to ensuring investigations into any allegations of wrongdoing by his security forces and challenged his accusers to provide evidence.

For decades the Sri Lankan government was embroiled in a brutal civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an insurgent group that fought to carve out a separate Tamil homeland in the country’s North and East until it was defeated militarily by government forces in May of 2009. Both sides stand accused of a range of human rights violations committed during the war, which claimed the lives of 40,000 civilians in its final days alone, according to the United Nations.

The military on Saturday denied it had anything to do with the latest mass grave to be discovered and said the victims could be civilians or conscripted combatants killed by the LTTE.

"Some interested parties are attempting to portray this as evidence of an incident for which the government and security forces should be held responsible," military spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya said in a statement.

He said there was no "factual basis" to point a finger at government forces.

The final battles between government forces and LTTE rebels were fought in the Mullaitivu district which was a stronghold of the separatist guerrillas for over two decades.

"The LTTE (Tamil Tigers) unhesitatingly killed any individual or group of people that attempted to defy their orders," Wanigasooriya said. "The skeletal remains found recently near a former LTTE-held area could very well be such dead buried secretly."

Chandrapala Kumarage, chairman of the Sri Lankan Bar Association’s human rights committee, said that a genuine transparent investigation of the Mullaittivu grave should be carried out to ensure justice for the victims.

“People want to know who the victims are, and how and when they died,” said Kumarage. “We don’t know whether this was done by the LTTE or the military. Our concern is about the death of civilians. There is a possibility that there may be more mass graves in the former war zone.”

The latest discovery also comes days after officials raised the number of bodies found in December in an unmarked mass grave in the adjoining district of Mannar to 80.

It was the first grave uncovered in the former zone since troops defeated LTTE rebels nearly five years ago.

“There was evidence of children and mothers in [the Mannar] mass grave,” said Bishop of Mannar Rayappu Joseph. “Why can’t the government invite UN experts and do a transparent investigation after sending samples of remains to a suitable country?”

Last year, construction workers stumbled on another mass grave in central Sri Lanka, hundreds of kms from the conflict zone.

At least 154 people were found in Matale district, the scene of an anti-government uprising between 1987 and 1990 unrelated to the Tamil separatist conflict.

Remains from that grave have been sent to China for further tests.

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