Page last updated at 21:43 GMT, Wednesday, 8 July 2009 22:43 UK

S Lanka medics recant on deaths

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Colombo

Doctors appear before the media
The doctors, who are still in detention, said they were threatened by rebels

Five doctors who worked in Sri Lanka's combat zone in the last weeks of the war say they exaggerated figures for civilian casualties.

They did so, they told reporters, because of pressure on them from the Tamil Tiger rebels, who controlled the area where they were working.

Sri Lanka's government declared victory in its war with Tamil Tigers in May.

The five have been in detention since then, but say they have been under no pressure to recant.

The appearance before reporters was an extraordinary event, which took place at the Sri Lankan government's Media Centre for National Security.

The centre is usually a venue for military spokesmen to talk about Sri Lankan war matters.

One by one

The doctors were introduced not by government officials but by a Mr J Yogaraj, who described himself as a freelance journalist.

There are very significant grounds to question whether these statements were voluntary
Amnesty International

He said that two of the doctors belonged to the Tamil Tigers' medical corps, while the other three were government appointees.

One by one they said they had overstated the civilian casualties during interviews with reporters during the fighting because they were told to by the rebels.

Regularly during the war some of the doctors said people had died in shelling which appeared to come from government-controlled territory.

The five doctors remain in government detention.

But in this public recantation, they looked calm and well-groomed, wearing immaculate shirts and ties, even nervously smiling.

One, though, Dr T Varatharajah, had his arm in a sling because, he said, of a shell injury sustained just before the doctors crossed to government-held land on 15 May, three days before the military declared all-out victory.

"Every day the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) people came to the hospital, they gave the list," he said. "This amount got injured, this amount dead, this area shells fell. We had to tell that list. Read it out. The list was wrong, exaggerated number."

Dr V Shanmugarajah said that on one day, some 60 people were killed but they were instructed by the rebels to say 1,000 were dead.

He and his colleagues said they believed a total of 600-700 civilians had been killed, and nearly twice that injured, between the start of January and the end of the war.

United Nations figures for those killed are roughly 10 times higher, while on 12 May the Red Cross said it had evacuated nearly 14,000 sick or wounded people and their relatives since mid-February.

Dr Varatharajah said it was not in fact true that a hospital had been shelled in an incident in early February. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations, who had staff on the ground, both said that it was, with the ICRC saying nine people had died.

Indeed the doctors now say medical facilities were little damaged overall.

Uncertain future

The medics also said shortages of food and medicine in the war zone arose only because the Tamil Tigers appropriated large quantities.

"Do you now regret giving false information?" one pro-government journalist asked later.

"Yes, of course we regret it," said Dr V Satyamoorthy.

He said there was no pressure being exerted on them; Sri Lanka was a democratic country and they were no longer lying.

But the changed nature of the information they gave is leading some to speculate otherwise.

"There are very significant grounds to question whether these statements were voluntary, and they raise serious concerns whether the doctors were subjected to ill-treatment during weeks of detention," said the human-rights group Amnesty International.

A United Nations spokesman in Sri Lanka said the UN stood by its own statements on casualties.

The doctors' immediate future is uncertain.

Although they say they were speaking under Tamil Tiger pressure, last week a senior presidential aide said they could not be allowed to "go scot-free" as they had been "lying through their teeth".

Last month a minister said they were suspected of "collaboration" with the Tigers and were being investigated on those lines.

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