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Page last updated at 16:03 GMT, Tuesday, 14 July 2009 17:03 UK

Sri Lanka probe 'clears military'

An Action Against Hunger worker watches two of the 17 aid workers' bodies being exhumed in September
The aid workers' bodies were later exhumed

Sri Lanka's top human rights panel has cleared the army of killing 17 people working for a French charity in 2006.

The head of the inquiry commission said he had been unable to find out who was to blame "because he ran out of funds".

The bodies of the Action Against Hunger workers were found in the north-eastern town of Muttur. Truce monitors blamed security forces, who denied the charge.

Heavy fighting had been going on in the area between troops and Tamil rebels fighting for an independent state.

Fifteen of the bodies were found lying down and shot at close range on 7 August 2006, in a case that caused an international outcry. Two other bodies were found later.

The aid staff - all but one ethnic Tamils - were working on tsunami relief projects in the area.

'Incorrect'

"The evidence that was laid before us is that not a single witness stated before us that they saw the army around the place at the relevant time," the head of the commission, retired Supreme Court Judge Nissanka Udalagama, told the BBC's Sinhala service.

"The entire town was taken over by the LTTE [Tamil Tiger rebels] at the time. The LTTE said on their website that they had taken over the town of Muttur," he said.

Defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella had earlier claimed that Muttur was under the complete control of the military at the time of the massacre.

Judge Udalagama said he "believed that information to be incorrect".

"We got the army to give evidence. The officer in charge of the contingent which came to Muttur from Jaffna gave evidence. He denied Rambukwella's statement. We would have liked to have Rambukwella's evidence, but because of time limits, we were unable to do so."

The report exonerates the army and navy, but says auxiliary police known as home guards could have carried out the killings.

"There was other evidence like the presence of Muslim home guards. They had access to the weapons. And it could have been LTTE," Judge Udalagama said.

The report also found the French charity to be at fault.

"They also have to take a portion of the blame, they have to enhance the compensation given to the people," Judge Udalagama said.

In 2007, a report by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said there had been "a disturbing lack of impartiality and transparency in the investigation" by the police into the massacre.

The report said official reports indicated that police had decided from the outset that Tamil rebels were responsible for the killing of the aid workers, all but one of whom were ethnic Tamils.

The report said the collection of evidence had been incomplete and inadequate.

Impunity

Critics say Sri Lanka has a long history of failing to prosecute human rights abuses.

The Sri Lankan group University Teachers for Human Rights said the government had to be held to account "to stop this culture of impunity in the country".

"The way in which the government handled the whole investigation - the pressure put on witnesses, the video conferencing through which witnesses tried to bring out information on how it was stopped - all sorts of things basically show that the commission was not interested in finding the true culprits," a spokesman for the group, Gopalasingham Sridharan, told BBC Tamil.

"Unfortunately we are not aware about the full report, from the media we gather that they are absolving the security forces.

"We are now in preparation of another report to try to bring out all the facts again."



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