United Nations: The Sri Lankan army killed most of the tens of thousands of civilian victims of a final offensive against Tamil separatists in 2009 but both sides may be guilty of war crimes, a UN panel said on Monday.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he could not order an international investigation into the deaths. But the UN will hold an inquiry into its actions in the final months of the war following criticism by the panel that more could have been done to save lives.
The panel`s report -- angrily opposed by the Sri Lankan government -- painted a barbarous picture of the final offensive on the Tamil enclave in the north of the island that ended a three-decade war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Hospitals, UN centers and Red Cross ships were deliberately shelled by government forces, prisoners shot in the head and women raped, it said. LTTE leaders used 330,000 civilians as a human shield and deliberately shot those who tried to escape.
"Tens of thousands lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of whom died anonymously in the carnage of the final few days," said the three-member panel led by former Indonesian attorney general Marzuki Darsman.
"Most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling," the report added.
The UN experts said there were "credible allegations" of serious violations of international law by government forces and the LTTE "some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity."
"The government of Sri Lanka should issue a public, formal acknowledgement of its role in responsibility for extensive civilian casualties in the final stages of the war," the experts said.
They called for Sri Lanka to "end all violence by the state," conduct an impartial investigation that meets international standards, help return the remains of the dead to families and pay reparations.
The United Nations should set up an "international mechanism" to monitor the investigation, conduct its own inquiry into violations and safeguard information on the war finale, they added.
Ban said he had been told that Sri Lanka must agree to any international investigation or that it has to be ordered by "an appropriate intergovernmental forum." Officials said this could be the UN Human Rights Council or the UN Security Council.
The panel criticized UN agencies for their actions in the final months of the conflict. Ban said he had agreed to a review.
"During the final stages of the war, the United Nations political organs and bodies failed to take actions that might have protected civilians," the panel said without naming any agencies.
Although international officials had called on the government to stop the shelling of hospitals and UN and international Red Cross targets, the panel said "the public use of casualty figures would have strengthened the call for the protection of civilians" while the deaths were increasing.
Sri Lanka did not immediately respond after the release of the report. It is almost certain to oppose any further action. After parts of the report were leaked to the Sri Lankan media, the government called the work "biased" and "preposterous."
The United Nations said it had offered to let Sri Lanka publish its comments with the report, but the government had not responded.
President Mahinda Rajapakse has called for this year`s May Day rally to be turned into a demonstration against any UN investigation.
Ban called on the Sri Lankan government to "respect the work of the UN and its agencies as well as their obligations to the safety of UN safety of UN staff in Colombo."
"He regrets the inflammatory tone of some of the recent public statements emanating from Sri Lanka," said a statement released by his office with the report.