The top aide to the United Nations Secretary-General was told more than a week ago that at least 20,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the Sri Lankan Government’s final offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels this month, The Times can reveal.
UN officials told Vijar Nambiar, Ban Ki Moon’s chief of staff, that their figures indicated a likely final death toll of more than 20,000, during a briefing in preparation for Mr Ban’s visit to the region on May 23.
Two staff present at the meeting confirmed the exchange to The Times but Mr Ban never mentioned the death toll during his tour of the battleground, which he described as the “most appalling scene” he had witnessed in his long international career.
The casualty figure, revealed by The Times yesterday, triggered an international furore, with the Sri Lankan authorities denying the report and human rights groups demanding an investigation into possible war crimes.
Lakshman Hulugalle, a Defence Ministry spokesman, said: “These figures are way out . . . What we think is that these images are also fake. We totally deny the allegation that 20,000 people were killed.”
But, internationally, calls have been growing for an independent war crimes investigations on both sides and for access by humanitarian groups to the war zone and the 270,000 Tamil civilians who are still being detained.
Amnesty International called on the UN to release the estimated figures to help to push for a war crimes inquiry. “The Timess investigation underscores the need for investigation and the UN should do everything it can to determine the truth about the ‘bloodbath’ that occurred in northeast Sri Lanka,” Sam Zarifi, the Asia-Pacific director of Amnesty International, said.
“The Human Rights Council’s decision not to call for specific measures to protect Sri Lankans made a mockery of the council, but it does not mean the end of the international community’s responsibility to respond to this continuing crisis,” Mr Zarifi said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross made a rare public plea yesterday for access to the no-fire zone and internment camps in the region. “We haven’t been able to access the areas where most of these people would have fled from since the ending of the most recent fighting,” Florian Westphal, the Red Cross spokesman, told a briefing in Geneva.
The figure of 20,000 casualties was given to The Times by UN sources, who explained in detail how they arrived at that calculation.
Before this month’s bombardment made the recording of each individual death impossible, the figures had been collated from deaths reported by priests and doctors and added to a count of the bodies brought to medical points.
Of the total, the bodies collected accounted for only a fifth of all reported deaths. After the bombing intensified this month, the only numbers available were by a count of the bodies. The 20,000 figure is an extrapolation based on the actual body count.
The 20,000 figure has also been obtained by Le Monde, the French daily newspaper, which quoted UN sources as saying that the figure had not been made public to avoid a diplomatic storm. The figure of 7,000 deaths until the end of April, which was based on individually documented deaths and not estimates, was leaked by UN sources in Sri Lanka this month after internal anger over the secrecy surrounding them. UN satellite images documenting the bombing of medical facilities were also leaked from New York.
The UN Humanitarian Co-ordination Office said yesterday that the figures cited by The Times were based on “well-informed estimates” given in private briefings to member states to underscore its concern — including Britain and the United States.
“You have seen the figures that are mentioned. Obviously, what we have are well-informed estimates and not precise, verifiable numbers,” said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the humanitarian co-ordination office. “The point is the UN has not been shy about the scale of human suffering and civilian casualties. It has been ringing the alarm bells for a long time.”