More than 40,000 died in end stages of Sri Lanka war: Book

New Delhi, Dec 24 (IANS) A book by a former BBC journalist based on interviews with those who survived the Sri Lanka war says more than 40,000 civilians died in the end stages of the bloody conflict.

Frances Harrison's "Still Counting The Dead" (Portobello Books) says the world turned a blind eye to the tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Sri Lanka's northeast "in the space of just five months in 2009".

The 259-page book, a chilling account of the war that finally destroyed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), says a UN panel later found reports of up to 40,000 dead credible.

But "there are signs that the final death toll could be a lot higher", Harrison says.

The journalist, who was based in Colombo when the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government were locked in a peace process that later collapsed, quoted the UN as estimating that at least 100,000 perished in the four decades of war.

This figure is "roughly equivalent to the numbers who died in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s".

Harrison's book is an account of some of the Tamil men and women - mostly civilians - who recount the death and destruction the Sri Lankan military caused as it vanquished the LTTE.

"It is an account of the victory from the perspective of the defeated," she says. "Yes, some in this book were terrorists or their sympathizers but by no means all."

The book quotes survivors - now scattered in the West - as saying that as the conflict neared its end in May 2009, "stench of decomposing flesh and burning tyres hung in the air, mixed with cordite, sweat and the tang of human fear".

She recalls how those civilians who survived made it to the nearest military camp - to surrender.

"They made a long march up the coastal road to an army camp, traversing a living hell, their bare feet stained with human blood.

"Around them fires were still burning, and limbless, decomposing corpses lay under vehicles or alongside bunkers.

"A priest said he personally saw thousands of dead on that journey, most of them civilians, not (LTTE) fighters."

When the frightened and barely living survivors reached the military camp, a Sinhalese soldier jeered: "We have killed all your leaders and you are our slaves."

The book goes on: "As the survivors were driven out of the war zone later that night, they saw hundreds of naked male and female bodies lined up on the ground, illuminated by lights powered by generators.

"The victorious soldiers were using their mobile phones to take trophy photos of the dead rebels."

With the LTTE rapidly retreating before meeting its end, medics who still remained in the shrinking war zone performed amputations "with no anaesthetic, and watching half their patients die".

Harrison says the Sri Lankan way of dealing with terrorism involved "scorched-earth tactics, blurring the distinction between civilians and combatants, and enforcing a media blackout".

She says China, Russia, Pakistan, India and Iran were among the staunchest supporters of Colombo when the war raged. "Today, the same countries protect Sri Lanka from war-crimes investigation."

Harrison is harsh on the Tigers too - and their supporters.

"On the Tamil side, there needs to be an honest rethinking of the unquestioning support for the rebels."

She says the LTTE leadership cynically controlled the movement of innocent civilians during the end stages of the war, exposing them to horrors and hoping their appalling images of suffering would move the world to intervene.

"In the end, all the top Tiger leaders were wiped out anyway and the movement destroyed. It was just much bloodier than it needed to be."

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