Chez les autres
Sri Lanka atrocity tales rage but proof impossible
By Peter Apps
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Dozens of schoolgirls killed by the air force, Muslims massacred by Tamil Tiger rebels, civilians targeted by both sides. There is no shortage of atrocity tales in Sri Lanka, but getting the truth is proving almost impossible.
With both the government and rebels facing each other in open ground warfare for the first time since a 2002 truce, few doubt that hundreds are dead and that civilians are suffering most.
But occasional fighting still erupts, and physically finding the corpses is hard. Local populations have fled and finding witnesses is harder than ever.
"It's too difficult," said head of the unarmed Nordic ceasefire monitoring mission Major General Ulf Henricsson, referring to one massacre allegation. "We haven't been able to get access to the ground and too much time has passed to get evidence. We will not be able to prove anything."
The U.N. children's' fund UNICEF says the rebels clearly still recruit and abduct children to fight, but says the renegade ex-rebel Karuna group now does the same. Aid workers say the government openly supports Karuna as the group fights the Tigers.
"It's really just so obvious," said one international aid worker on condition of anonymity, adding troops stood by as Karuna took youths away. "Last Tuesday and Wednesday, there was 25 taken. There's been no official condemnation."
Pro-government and pro-rebel websites show harrowing pictures: a decapitated child, a baby shot dead, lines of corpses and wailing relatives. All, they say, show the enemy's depravity. Sometimes, they use the same picture to blame each other.
On Monday, the government posted video of what it said were captured Tigers talking about abuse at the hands of the rebels -- a move that rights staff said was at best legally dubious.
As tens of thousands of Muslims fled the town of Mutur, witnesses agree that some were taken captive by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), ethnic rebels who want a Tamil homeland and who have long been feared by Sri Lankan Muslims.
NEVER TO KNOW?
Some of those taken escaped amid shellfire. Others were killed by the shells. The government says dozens were massacred but the Red Cross has not found large numbers of bodies.
Perhaps they were taken and hidden, perhaps there was nothing to find.
Ironically, both sides agree that around 60 school-aged girls died last week in an air strike on an ex-orphanage in northern rebel territory. The rebels say they were simply studying first aid, the government says they were Tiger child soldiers training.
But truce monitors and other witnesses said there did not appear to have been enough blood for 60 people to have been killed. They only saw 19 young adult bodies, male and female.
"We really do not know what happened and we probably never will," said one Western diplomat.
Some believe it was really a strike aimed at reclusive Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Generally the pressure for a proper investigation only really comes when outside groups get involved, hence the execution-style killing of 17 Sri Lankan staff from international aid group Action Contre La Faim is the best documented so far.
Photos show the bodies lying apparently where they fell in the agency's compound in the northeastern town of Mutur. Most had been shot several times.
Officials promised a full probe, but truce monitors say the investigation is stalled.
"I can't see any action on that," said chief monitor Henricsson, adding that as a result government forces were the prime suspect in the killing.