LONDON (AFP) — More than 20,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final onslaught by the Sri Lankan government on separatist rebels this month, which ended Asia's longest civil war, a British newspaper said Friday.
The figure was three times the official casualty figure, the Times said.
Fighting ended when Sri Lankan troops crushed Tamil Tiger rebels accused of holding tens of thousands of civilians as human shields, said the Times.
Citing its own investigation, the paper said most of the 20,000 deaths were caused by the government.
Sri Lanka has insisted its forces stopped using heavy weapons on April 27 and respected a no-fire zone where 100,000 men, women and children were sheltering, the newspaper reported.
Confidential UN documents indicated 7,000 civilians died in the no-fire zone up to the end of April, said the Times, noting that journalists had been barred from the conflict zone.
But citing aerial photographs, official documents, witness accounts and expert testimony, the paper said the death toll mounted, with 1,000 civilians killed each day until May 19, the day after the death of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Photographs published by the Times appeared to show sand mounds, indicating makeshift burial grounds, the paper said, citing analysis of the images by independent defence experts.
Charles Heyman, editor of the magazine Armed Forces, said it seemed unlikely that Tamil Tiger mortar fire or artillery caused a significant number of deaths, from the layout shown in the aerial photos.
"It looks more likely that the firing position has been located by the Sri Lankan Army and it has then been targeted with air-burst and ground-impact mortars," he told the Times.
A spokesman for the Sri Lankan High Commission in London dismissed the report.
"We reject all these allegations. Civilians have not been killed by government shelling at all," he told the paper.
"If civilians have been killed, then that is because of the actions of the LTTE who were shooting and killing people when they tried to escape," he added.
The French daily Le Monde this week cited UN figures putting the death tool at 7,720, including 678 children, between January 20 and May 13, while 18,465 people were injured, 2,384 of them children.
But it said there had been "an attempt to systematically suppress this material" by the UN.
On Thursday UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay maintained her demand for an investigation into abuses allegedly carried out by both sides in Sri Lanka's just-ended civil war.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched a campaign in 1972 to create a separate Tamil homeland in the Sinhalese-majority island, with much of the group's funding coming from Tamils overseas.
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