Sri Lanka president Rajapakse pledges fresh war crimes probe

In this handout photograph released by the Sri Lankan Presidential Office, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse (centre) is pictured as he unveils his manifesto for the January 2015 presidential election in Colombo on Dec 23, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
In this handout photograph released by the Sri Lankan Presidential Office, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse (centre) is pictured as he unveils his manifesto for the January 2015 presidential election in Colombo on Dec 23, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka's president, under pressure from his main opponent in upcoming elections, on Tuesday promised a judicial inquiry into allegations that his troops killed thousands of Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war.

But President Mahinda Rajapakse reiterated that he would not cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation into the government's 2009 crushing of the Tamil Tiger rebellion.

"If any rights have been violated (during the war), justice will be ensured through a transparent domestic judicial mechanism," Mr Rajapakse said in his election manifesto.

It did not say how this would differ from an inquiry he ordered in July, following intense foreign pressure to account for the 2009 killing of Tamil civilians.

A 2011 United Nations report cited estimates from "credible sources" that up to 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final months of the war.

Mr Rajapakse is credited with crushing the Tamil Tiger rebels who at the height of their power between 1990 and 1995 controlled a third of Sri Lanka's territory.

But he is also accused of rights abuses and is perceived by some as an increasingly authoritarian ruler.

Maithripala Sirisena, his main opponent in the January 8 presidential election, has already promised a similar investigation.

Mr Rajapakse was seen as the favourite when he called the snap election in November, two years ahead of schedule.

But Mr Sirisena has emerged as a formidable opponent after securing the support of all the main opposition groups, including the tacit support of minority Tamils.

The United Nations has estimated that at least 100,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka's separatist war between 1972 and 2009, when security forces declared victory over the rebels who fought for independence for minority Tamils.

Tamils account for about 15 per cent of the population and usually vote together. They will be kingmakers if, as seems likely, the majority Sinhalese community is split down the middle between Mr Rajapakse and Mr Sirisena.

Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe told a meeting of local business leaders Tuesday that they would ensure a South African-style truth commission if Sirisena was elected in January.

"We need some sort of a truth-seeking mechanism where there will be apologies and forgiving," Mr Wickremesinghe said.

Mr Rajapakse had also toyed with the idea of a truth commission, whereby perpetrators confess to their crimes but are not prosecuted.

However, he did not pursue it. Instead, in July he asked a Commission of Inquiry already investigating the disappearance of nearly 20,000 people during the war to include other alleged abuses in its investigation.