Sri Lanka takes first count of civilian war deaths

Sri Lanka soldiers

Sri Lanka is counting the number of civilians killed in the final stages of the country's bloody civil war for the first time, a top defense official said Thursday. The census aims to counter growing allegations of war crimes against the military.

The government until recently had maintained that there were 'zero civilian casualties' in its final offensive against separatist Tamil Tiger rebels, despite a United Nations report that tens of thousands may have been killed in the push. In August, the government conceded for the first time that civilian deaths did occur but they were unavoidable.

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said at a news conference on Thursday that the government's count so far shows a very small number of civilians died because of military action.

Rajapaksa said the government census department was tasked with the survey and its results will soon be released to the public.

With the document near completion "it has been possible to identify by name all such persons (dead or missing)", he said.

"As a result of the census we already know that the real number of the dead and missing is far too small to provide any substance to absurd allegations of genocide and war crimes that have been made."

A UN report released in April said tens of thousands of civilians may have been killed in the final months of the decades-long war that the government's offensive finally ended in May 2009.

The UN report said most of the casualties came from government shelling and called for an independent international investigation into what it called credible allegations against the government and the Tamil Tigers.

Rajapaksa's statement came amid growing calls for an international war crimes probe of the government's action at the end of the war.

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