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Pressure is growing on the Sri Lankan government to fully investigate alleged war crimes committed in the final months of civil war in 2009.

Horrific footage that was aired on British television on Tuesday night has prompted UK government ministers to ask their Sri Lankan counterparts to launch an urgent and thorough probe.

The one hour documentary shown on Channel4 presents apparent mobile phone images purporting to show summary executions of bound and naked prisoners, shelling of civilian hospitals and what the channel says is evidence of sexual assault by government forces. The documentary was shown earlier this month on the sidelines of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the footage examined by UN appointed experts who concluded it was authentic.

Citing its own expert, the Sri Lankan government claims on its Defence Ministry website that the pictures are fake.

The dying months of the civil war

25 years of conflict against Tamil Tiger insurgents demanding an independent homeland had already left tens of thousands of people dead. In September 2008, an offensive by Sri Lankan troops brought them to the gates of the Tigers’ last remaining stronghold, Kilinochchi. Rebel fighters and hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were surrounded. Sri Lanka’s government warned UN workers in Kilinochchi that it could no longer guarantee their safety and asked them to leave the area. The UN staff left and what followed in the following months could not be independently verified. A former UN spokesman for Sri Lanka says in the Channel4 documentary that he believes the government “intended to remove independent witnesses to what was coming.”

The documentary-makers say they have spent two years collecting images taken on mobile phones “both by Tamils under attack and government soldiers as war trophies.” Eye-witness accounts also suggest civilians were deliberately targeted by government troops while receiving treatment in hospitals. Tamil fighters are accused of using civilians as human shields.

Investigating accusations of war crimes

The UN’s special rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions has said the footage is evidence of “serious international crimes” and that the case “should go to the next level of investigation on a domestic and an international level.”

Sri Lanka’s government has launched what it calls the ‘Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Committee’ to investigate the operation in and around Kilinochchi.

The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been criticised for not ordering an investigation. A spokesman for Ban has said that without either the consent of Sri Lanka’s government or a decision taken by an internationally-recognised UN body such as the Security Council, there can be no formal UN probe.

Following Tuesday’s broadcast of the film in Britain, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said from London that the UK had been calling for a thorough and independent investigation since the end of the conflict, warning that “if the Sri Lankan government does not respond we will support the international community in revisiting all options available to press the Sri Lankan Government to fulfil its obligations.”

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