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Sri Lanka mass grave 'on old burial site'

Work on grave site suspended after official says it pre-dates war during which both sides were accused of atrocities.

Last updated: 08 Mar 2014 09:16
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The decades-long war killed thousands and many others remain missing or live in refugee camps [AP]

Sri Lankan authorities have halted excavations in a suspected mass grave after suspicions that 83 skeletons unearthed from the former northern war zone may date to before the war against Tamil rebels.

The Sri Lankan army has been accused of killing tens of thousands of civilians in 2009, during the final weeks of the 26-year war against northern Tamil separatists who had sought a separate state to represent their ethnic minority.

Colombo has been under pressure to investigate reports of mass graves there.

Police at first suggested the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists could be responsible for the burial site near a Hindu temple in the northwestern town of Mannar, which was the fist to be uncovered since the war came to an end almost five years ago.

But Senerath Dissanayake, director general of the state-run archaeological department, said it was not a mass grave as the bodies had been "buried systematically".

"These are about 50 years old. It is a grave yard. Even our officers can identify and see the cut marks of the graves. We have found 83 skeletons so far and we will stop," he told Reuters news agency.

However, three area residents told Reuters in January there was no cemetery in the area from the time they moved there around 1970.

Residents say the area was controlled mainly by the army from 1990 but the military has disputed the claim, saying it was under the LTTE control during the most of the war period.

No forensic tests yet

Excavators said they did not wish to dig deeper as not to disturb those who were properly buried.

Judicial medical officer Dhananjaya Waidyaratne said digging at a depth of about two metres led to the old cemetery and the authorities did not want to go deeper and disturb those who had been properly buried.

"These remains were in a mass grave buried in a haphazard way compared to the properly laid out graves we found at a depth of two metres," Waidyaratne told the AFP news agency.

"We have not started any forensic tests. That is still pending," Waidyaratne told Reuters, adding the bodies had been buried in layers.

More than 100,000 people were killed in the war since its start in 1983 and thousands, mainly from the minority Tamil community living mostly in the north, are still missing.

The United States plans to submit a resolution criticising Sri Lanka at this month's session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, calling the Human Rights High Commissioner's office to investigate the charges of war-related rights abuses.

A UN panel has said around 40,000 mainly Tamil civilians died in the ferocious final months of the conflict, but Sri Lanka has disputed that figure. Both sides committed atrocities, but army shelling killed most victims, it concluded.

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