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Wednesday, July 22, 1998 Published at 14:38 GMT 15:38 UK

World: South Asia

Sri Lanka to investigate mass graves claim

Detainees in a prison camp. Many never returned home

The Sri Lankan Defence Ministry has ordered an investigation into allegations that up to 400 bodies were buried by security forces in a mass grave in the northern Jaffna Peninsula.

The inquiry is linked to reports by the human rights organisation, Amnesty International, that more than 500 Tamils disappeared after being arrested in mid-1996 when government troops retook the peninsula from Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

A soldier, convicted with others of killing four people in 1996, has spoken of the existence of the grave - a representative of the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission is to interview him further.

Hundreds disappeared

It has taken the government nearly three weeks to comment on the allegations that senior army officers ordered their subordinates to bury hundreds of bodies in a shallow grave in marshland in Jaffna.

The BBC correspondent in Colombo says the grave, if it does exist, could explain the fate of hundreds of Tamil civilians who disappeared in Jaffna after being detained by the security forces.

The family of the disappeared continue to petition the government for information.

[ image: Arrests and round-ups were common in northern Jaffna]
Arrests and round-ups were common in northern Jaffna
They say they want to know the truth, even if it is that their loved ones have been killed and not that they are being held prisoner.

Tamil leaders and human rights groups have called for an independent investigation into the allegations about the mass grave.

Allegations too serious to ignore

Many have urged caution, considering the information was given by a convicted murderer in mitigation for his crimes in court.

However, all agree it is too serious a matter to ignore.

The government-funded but independently-run Human Rights Commission is sending one of its commissioners to interview the prisoner in depth about his claims.

The commission will then decide whether the report should be sent to the Attorney General for further investigation.

The government says that due legal process will be observed to bring the offenders to justice.

However, activists in Colombo say this could take a long time.

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