United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said both sides could be guilty of war crimes in the Sri Lanka conflict and more than 2,800 civilians could have been killed since late January.
“Certain actions being undertaken by the Sri Lankan military and by the LTTE (Tamil Tiger rebels) may constitute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law,” Pillay said.
“We need to know more about what is going on, but we know enough to be sure that the situation is absolutely desperate. The world today is ever sensitive about such acts that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Casualties in ‘no fire’ zones
She said credible sources had told the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) more than 2,800 civilians might have been killed, including hundreds of children, and more than 7,000 injured since January 20.
The Sri Lankan defence ministry says troops are on the verge of defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who have been fighting for a separate homeland since 1972.
Many of the casualties were inside areas designated as safe “no-fire” zones by the government, the OHCHR said.
Civilians still trapped
The UN estimates 150,000 to 180,000 civilians remain trapped in an ever-shrinking area of territory in the northern Vanni region. Sri Lanka officially estimates 70,000 civilians are still in the war zone along with about 500 Tiger fighters.
“The current level of civilian casualties is truly shocking, and there are legitimate fears that the loss of life may reach catastrophic levels if the fighting continues in this way,” the high commissioner said.
“The brutal and inhuman treatment of civilians by the LTTE is utterly reprehensible, and should be examined to see if it constitutes war crimes,” she added.
The government bars most journalists and aid workers from the north of the island, meaning the claims cannot be confirmed.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for a swift halt to the conflict to avoid further civilian casualties after the International Red Cross said in January that “hundreds” had been killed.