Sri Lanka sets up office to trace 20,000 war missing

A Sri Lankan soldier at a memorial during a commemorative ceremony in Colombo on May 18, 2016 marking the seventh anniversary of the end of the island’s Tamil separatist war.
A Sri Lankan soldier at a memorial during a commemorative ceremony in Colombo on May 18, 2016 marking the seventh anniversary of the end of the island’s Tamil separatist war.PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka Wednesday (May 25) announced it was setting up an office to trace thousands of people still missing seven years after the end of its ethnic war, to try to bring closure for families.

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said the cabinet had approved the creation of an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) with wide powers to investigate the disappearance of more than 20,000 people.

"The need to set up such an office is particularly acute as Sri Lanka has one of the largest caseloads of missing persons in the entire world," the minister said in a statement.

He said a vast number of cases remain unsolved despite the end of the decades-long Tamil separatist war in May 2009.

The OMP will be asked to recommend compensation and clear the way for next of kin to take legal action against anyone responsible for the disappearance of their loved ones, the minister said.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told members of the ethnic Tamil minority earlier this year that thousands who are still missing may be dead.

"There are lists of missing people and I am afraid most of them may not be among the living," Wickremesinghe said in the northern city of Jaffna in January.

The army crushed separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in a no-holds-barred offensive, sparking allegations that troops killed at least 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of the war.

The then-nationalist leader Mahinda Rajapakse had resisted international pressure to probe alleged war crimes.

However, Rajapakse's successor Maithripala Sirisena, who came to power in January last year, has agreed to a domestic investigation into violations of international humanitarian law.

The Tamil separatist war between 1972 and 2009 claimed the lives of at least 100,000 people.