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Page last updated at 19:44 GMT, Thursday, 4 June 2009 20:44 UK

Sri Lanka doctors 'to be tried'

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Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama rejects criticism of the Tamil conflict

A group of doctors who worked in Sri Lanka's rebel-held war zone are being held on suspicion of collaborating with Tamil rebels, the government says.

The doctors could be in detention for a year or more before being tried.

With journalists banned from the conflict zone, they became an important source of news about the fighting during the final bloody months of war.

There has been no word from the doctors, whose work was praised by the US and UN, since they were detained.

Last month the Sri Lankan government defeated Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for a separate homeland.

Government infuriated

During the final phase of the war, the group of doctors treated wounded and ill patients admitted to the makeshift health posts in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-held zone encircled by government forces.

Two of them were senior local health directors and the United States has said they "helped save many lives" while the UN called them "heroic".

FROM BBC WORLD SERVICE

But the BBC's Charles Haviland in Colombo says that the government was infuriated by the doctors' media interviews from the zone, in which they said some of the shelling there had come from the government side and had killed civilians.

In an interview with BBC World News television, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama accused the doctors of "spreading falsehoods". He said that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had full access to them.

Mr Bogollagama said the issue was whether the pair had been looking after civilians or whether they had been used by the rebels "for other purposes".

"What is the heroic act the doctors have done in terms of supporting the Tamil Tigers agenda?" he asked.

'Conspiracy'

In the final stages of the war the doctors made no comment on the allegations from the government that they were supporting the rebels.

An image from a doctor in Mullivaikal apparently showing damage to the makeshift hospital there
Images sent by the doctors appeared to show bodies and building damage

Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told the BBC they are being detained at the Criminal Investigation Department on "reasonable suspicion of collaboration with the LTTE".

"I don't know what the investigations would reveal but maybe they were even part of that whole conspiracy to put forward this notion that government forces were shelling and targeting hospitals and indiscriminately targeting civilians as a result of the shelling," he said.

The government says not a single civilian died as a result of its final offensive, despite international allegations to the contrary.

The minister says the doctors must be produced in court every month while investigations proceed pending possible charges.

He said the investigation could last up to a year, but there might be extensions to that.

Separately, Sri Lanka's foreign secretary, Palitha Kohona, has been speaking of the government-run camps where more than 250,000 Tamils from the war zone are detained.

He said everyone there had to be carefully screened, adding that it was "quite likely" that even many elderly people were "with the LTTE, at least mentally".



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