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Sri Lanka rejects U.N. allegations on civilian deaths
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's government rejected on Saturday U.N. allegations that soldiers had killed more than 2,800 civilians as unsubstantiated and based on sources allied with the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels.
Colombo's angry reaction came after U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said on Friday that both sides may have committed war crimes, and soldiers had shelled no-fire zones and areas packed with thousands of civilians.
"We are not only disappointed, we are dismayed," Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told a press conference. "These are unsubstantiated figures."
Pillay in her statement on Friday said her office had received evidence of shelling deaths from "a range of credible sources" she did not name.
Sri Lanka's military has surrounded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 37 sq km (15 sq miles) of the island nation's northeastern coast and is fighting to deal a death blow to a separatist war that has raged off and on since 1983.
Fears have also risen for tens of thousands of people trapped there, most in a 12-km coastal strip the army has declared a no-fire zone which the LTTE says is being constantly shelled. The government denies that and says the LTTE fires from it.
Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona said the LTTE's propaganda arm was trying to manufacture a civilian crisis to create international pressure for a ceasefire, to buy time to rearm now that they are on the verge of defeat.
"We don't believe that the LTTE and Pillay are in any way connected, but it's unfortunate that she relies on figures which were published on TamilNet or figures that were carried by the International Crisis Group a few days ago," he told reporters.
TamilNet is a pro-rebel web site that has repeatedly accused the military of targeting civilians and the Crisis Group think-tank this week said U.N. agencies in Sri Lanka had tallied at least 2,300 deaths since late January.
A U.N. spokesman in Colombo at the time said he could not confirm or deny the accuracy of the numbers.
The government says there are 70,000 people trapped in the war zone, while the Red Cross says there are 150,000. Sri Lanka says it has stopped using artillery to protect people, and is taking more casualties as a result.
Samarsinghe said Sri Lanka does not deny some civilians have been killed, but said the figures had been inflated and accused Pillay of glossing over the LTTE's role in the civilians' fate.
"The main issue here that has not been highlighted is that the LTTE must let go of those civilians, which is not mentioned," Samarasinghe said.
Pillay's statement said there were reports the LTTE was holding civilians as human shields, shooting those who left and forcibly recruiting people including children to fight, which demanded investigation as possible war crimes.
The U.N. childrens' agency UNICEF has said the LTTE is recruiting children as young as 15 and the U.N. office in Colombo has said one of its local employees had been dragooned into the LTTE's ranks by force.
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