Lanka rights group blames military for deaths of 17 aid workers in 2006

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Colombo, Apr.1 : A human rights group today blamed Sri Lankan security forces for the massacre of 17 aid workers 20 months ago, saying police and paramilitary forces shot the victims as they knelt on the ground and begged for their lives.

The killing of the Sri Lankan workers for the French aid agency Action Against Hunger horrified many here. No one has been charged in their deaths, and holding someone accountable is seen as a crucial test of the government's commitment to human rights.

European monitors blamed Sri Lanka's security forces for the killings. The government denied the allegations and blamed the rebels.

University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR), a respected local group, issued a 29-page report on Tuesday that described the killings of the 17 in the eastern town of Muttur in August 2006, after a fierce battle between troops and Tamil rebels.

It was one of the worst attacks on humanitarian workers since the 2003 bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad.

In its report, the UTHR named three people - a local home guard and two police constables as the killers of most of the 17 local aid workers in August 2006.

"The evidence shows state security forces, including police, killed them and that senior police officers covered it up," the BBC quoted UTHR spokesman Rajan Hoole, as saying.

"The killing of civilians during time of conflict is a war crime. The perpetrators and their superiors should be brought to justice," Hoole added.

The mainly ethnic Tamil workers were involved in rebuilding the north-east of Sri Lanka two years after the December 26, 2004 tsunami. They were found lying face down with bullet marks in their heads in an Action Against Hunger compound in the predominantly Muslim town of Muttur.

The military said they were trapped in fighting between troops and rebels. It has blamed the Tamil Tigers for the murders.

The report said the brother of the home guard had been killed by a Tiger gunman the previous day and he wanted vengeance.

It said a special forces commander in the town had ordered security forces to kill any Tamil speakers in plain clothes after a rebel disguised as a civilian had killed troops.

The report quoted witnesses describing an "air of celebration" at Muttur police station after the massacre.

It said that there was a culture of impunity in Sri Lanka as the 2002 ceasefire collapsed into open war.

UTHR said publishing the report was risky, because three witnesses had already been killed, a fourth had gone missing and others had fled the country.

Meanwhile an international panel invited by Sri Lanka to observe the government's probe into human rights abuses has shut down, three weeks after accusing Colombo of failing to tackle the issue.

The International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) was formed to observe an inquiry into 16 cases of serious rights violations, including the August 2006 massacre.

In a statement on Monday, the IIGEP said they were halting their efforts to determine whether the inquiries were being conducted "in accordance with internationally accepted norms and standards".

Earlier this month, the group had accused the government of lacking the political will to investigate the incidents and said Sri Lankan authorities did not meet the basic minimum standards in investigating serious rights abuses.

The IIGEP's final report is expected to be presented to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse next month and the panel's office will formally close on April 30, a statement released by it said.

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