Sri Lanka's new government plans fresh probe into rights abuses during civil war

A Sri Lankan Catholic devotee holds a photograph of his close family members on his arrival the day before the celebration of the Papal Mass by Pope Francis in the capital Colombo on Jan 13, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
A Sri Lankan Catholic devotee holds a photograph of his close family members on his arrival the day before the celebration of the Papal Mass by Pope Francis in the capital Colombo on Jan 13, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka is planning an investigation into accusations of human rights abuses in the final stages of a 26-year civil war amid international frustration at the failure to look into numerous civilian deaths, a government spokesman said on Wednesday.

Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was ousted in a surprise election defeat this month, had refused to cooperate with any United Nations investigation into claims the army committed atrocities in the war that ended in 2009.

Without some accountability for civilian deaths, the United Nations argues there will be no lasting reconciliation to allow Sri Lanka to move on from the war that dragged on for decades as ethnic Tamil rebels battled for autonomy in the island's north and east. "We are thinking of having our own inquiry acceptable to them to the international standards," Mr Rajitha Seneviratne, a government spokesman, told a forum of foreign correspondents in Colombo late on Wednesday, referring to the United Nations. "It will be a new local inquiry. If we need, we will bring some foreign experts."

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in November accused Mr Rajapaksa's government of trying to "sabotage" its own investigation and creating a "wall of fear" to prevent witnesses from giving evidence to its inquiry set up in March.

About 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final weeks of the war, most of them by the Sri Lankan army, the United Nations estimated in a 2011 report. Sri Lanka has rejected the accusations and has been conducting its own investigation.

Newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena, in the run up to the vote, promised a new investigation under an independent judiciary, but rejected demands for an international inquiry.

This week, he sent his senior adviser on foreign relations to meet UN officials to discuss the investigation, government sources said.

Mr Seneviratne also said the government was looking at releasing political prisoners, mainly suspected members of the defeated Tamil Tiger rebel group.