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Sri Lanka: Hell or High Water

by Eric Campbell, ABC News, Australia, February 9, 2010

“About 300,000 civilians, plus the Tamil Tiger forces, were trapped in an area of territory about the size of Central Park in New York,” says Weiss. “They were within range of all the armaments that were being used, small and large, being used to smash the Tamil Tiger lines … the end result was that many thousands lost their lives.”

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As many as 40,000 civilians could have been killed during the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war, according to someone with detailed knowledge of the conflict – the former United Nations’ spokesperson in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss. Mr Weiss has resigned from the UN after

Gordon Weiss, May 11, 2009

14 years and returned home to Australia. He’s now free to speak openly about the situation in Sri Lanka, for the first time and does so candidly and unflinchingly in Foreign Correspondent’s return program.

He tells reporter Eric Campbell that between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians died during the final, desperate battles - last year - of one of the world’s longest running and bloodiest civil wars.

“About 300,000 civilians, plus the Tamil Tiger forces, were trapped in an area of territory about the size of Central Park in New York,” says Weiss. “They were within range of all the armaments that were being used, small and large, being used to smash the Tamil Tiger lines … the end result was that many thousands lost their lives.”

Gordon Weiss says his information comes from reliable sources who had a presence inside the battle zone, not Tamil civilians or fighters.

"The Sri Lankan government said many things which were either intentionally misleading, or were lies", Weiss tells Campbell. He says that after the war ended, a senior civil servant openly admitted that the authorities had deliberately underestimated the number of trapped civilians “as a ploy to allow the government to get on with its business.”

Nesemelar's son was in a group of 150 people caught trying to flee Sri Lanka by boat.

He acknowledges that the Tamil Tiger forces were also regularly and ruthlessly killing people, to stop them from leaving the battle zones.

Campbell talks to Tamils who were caught trying to flee to Australia by boat. Despite facing criminal charges in Sri Lanka as a result, one of them admits he’s going to try to make the journey again, as soon as he can. He says he can’t live in Sri Lanka any more.

Claims of Tamil persecution are denied by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who tells Campbell asylum seekers are criminals – drug dealers and arms traffickers. The President says the problem will disappear and national unity will prevail now that the Tamil Tigers have been destroyed. Tamils prepared to farewell their home, friends and extended families to make the dangerous journey to Australia are a clear indication rhetoric and reality are along way apart.

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Up to 40,000 civilians 'died in Sri Lanka offensive'

By Andrew Buncombe, Asia Correspondent, The Independent, UK, February 12, 2010

The bitter controversy surrounding the final stages of the Sri Lankan government’s operation to crush separatist rebels has been reopened after a former UN official claimed that up to 40,000 civilians may have been killed.

The IndependentIn the final stages of last year’s move to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the UN protested strongly about the number of Tamil civilians caught up in the fighting. Privately, officials estimated that between 8,000-10,000 lost their lives and that many more were wounded.

Now, Gordon Weiss, who until the end of last year was the UN’s spokesman in Colombo, has suggested the figure may be much higher. “A lot of civilians died inside the siege zone. I have heard anything between ten and forty thousand people and that’s from reliable sources who had a presence inside the zone,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “[The Sri Lankan authorities] repeated a number of things that were either intentionally misleading or were lies. One senior government civil servant remarked at the end of the war that the government insistence that the figures were very low was a ploy. It was a ploy to allow the government to get on with its business.”

Last night, the Sri Lankan government dismissed the claims. Lucien Rajakarunanayake, a senior presidential spokesman said: “All I can tell you is that [Mr Weiss] is unaware of the facts. The figures are a total exaggeration. The UN itself has given figures that are much lower than this.”

Precisely how many civilians were injured or wounded as Sri Lankan forces defeated the remnant of the LTTE fighters making a final stand in the north east of Sri Lanka, may never be known. At the time, the UN and other organisations claimed that civilians were being struck by ordinance fired by both sides. Testimony provided by Tamils who escaped from the war zone suggests that many civilians were used as human shields by the LTTE as government troops advanced.

Mr Weiss was last night unavailable to comment and the UN in Sri Lanka refused to discuss the claims of its former spokesman, believed to be writing a memoir of his experiences in Sri Lanka.

In the interview, the former spokesman also suggested there was a need to investigate allegations of possible war crimes. While there have been widespread calls for such an inquiry, including from some senior figures within the UN, the Sri Lankan authorities have refused such an undertaking. “I will not allow any investigation by the United Nations or any other country. There is nothing wrong happening in this country?Take it from me, we will not allow any investigation,” Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the country’s defence secretary and brother of the president, recently told an interviewer.

Indeed, the purported readiness of former army chief Sarath Fonseka to cooperate with such an inquiry has been cited by the government as one of the reasons he was arrested and placed in detention and will likely be placed before a court-martial. Mr Fonseka, who last month failed in his electoral challenge to Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had said allegations about war could be investigated. The defence secretary said of Mr Fonseka’s undertaking: “He simply cannot do that. For one thing it is a lie.”

Yesterday, hundreds of lawyers marched through Colombo to protest against Mr Fonseka’s continued detention. They gathered near the country’s Supreme Court which admitted a petition filed by the former general’s wife that claimed his detention by the military police was illegal. The court has given the government four weeks to reply.

Such a date would be less than a month before parliamentary that Mr Fonseka has intended to contest. The government has not yet specified which charges it wishes to bring against him, but has repeatedly claimed he was plotting a coup – something he denied.

Meanwhile, the US and Norway denied claims made by the government that they had bankrolled Mr Fonseka’s campaign. In a statement, the US Embassy in Colombo said: “The United States backed no candidate but strongly supported a free, fair, and credible democratic process.”

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UN statement on former spokesman views

Office of the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Sri Lanka, February 15, 2010


The Office of the UN Resident Coordinator has received queries regarding recent comments made by former UN spokesman, Gordon Weiss, in an interview with Australian Television. These views, communicated to the media are his personal ones and do not represent those of the United Nations. The overall view of the UN on any particular situation comes from statements by the Secretary General or other senior UN figures.

A number of queries were made on Mr. Weiss' comments on civilian casualties. The UN repeatedly and publicly said there were unacceptably high civilian casualties from the fighting in the last months of the war, as a result of the LTTE forcibly preventing people leaving and the Government's use of heavy weapons in areas close to thousands of civilians. While we maintained internal estimates of casualties, circumstances did not permit us to independently verify them on the ground, and therefore we do not have verifiable figures of how many casualties there were.

The UN remains committed to supporting the Government of Sri Lanka in its efforts to rebuild communities and support peaceful solutions.