Sri Lanka to launch special court to probe war crimes

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Sri Lanka will launch a special war crimes court early next year to investigate major atrocities during the bloody finale to its decades-long ethnic war, a top official said Tuesday.

Former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, who heads the office of national unity and reconciliation, said her work cannot be done without justice for victims of the 37-year conflict that ended in May 2009.

"We have ended the war nearly seven years ago, but we have not won the peace," Kumaratunga told reporters. "No reconciliation is possible without accepting the mistakes of the past."

She said tens of thousands of victims of the Tamil separatist conflict would not accept reconciliation unless war criminals are brought to justice.

A special court is set to begin work by January, two months before a UN Human Rights Council review of Sri Lanka's progress in implementing a September resolution calling for accountability for war crimes, she said.

"Enormous amount of work has been done and the special court should start its work by the end of this month or by early January," she said.

"They (the court) will not be chasing behind every soldier, but the main line of command will be looked at," she said adding that surviving Tamil rebel leaders would also be hauled up to answer allegations of "horrendous crimes" by the rebels.

International rights groups as well as Tamils had pressed for international judges and prosecutors to be involved in a Sri Lankan war crimes probe, but the government has firmly rejected this.

Kumaratunga said she personally believed that involving independent foreign judges was preferable as suggested in a UN Human Rights Council resolution adopted in October.

Local and international rights groups have accused both sides in the war of targeting civilians. At least 100,000 civilians were killed in the conflict between 1972 and 2009.

Some of the bloodiest fighting came in the last two months when troops unleashed a no-holds-barred onslaught against the rebels, with rights group saying tens of thousands of people may have been killed.

Kumaratunga, who ruled between 1994 and 2005, said her office was working on building bridges between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils to ensure ethnic peace after decades of war.

"Reconciliation and accountability will have to go hand in hand," Kumaratunga said. "You cannot have one without the other."