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U.N. calls for special court to prosecute Sri Lanka war crimes

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - Sri Lankan state forces and Tamil Tiger rebels "most likely" committed war crimes including mass killings of civilians during their conflict that should be prosecuted by a special court with international judges, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

Despite pledges by the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena to prosecute perpetrators, the criminal justice system was not up to the huge task alone, said the long-delayed report by the U.N. human rights office.

It called on Colombo to remove from office military and security personnel and any other officials "where there are reasonable grounds to believe that they were involved in human rights violations" in the 26-year war that ended in 2009.

The report named no suspects, saying it was a "human rights investigation, not a criminal investigation" and that individual prosecutions should be left for the new court.

"We hope ... that the security services will understand there must be a sort of reckoning with the past and there must be accountability," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein told reporters.

The inquiry documented "the years of denials and cover-ups, the failure to carry out prompt investigations, stalled investigations and reprisals against the family members of victims and others who have advocated for justice," Zeid said.

Sri Lanka promised on Wednesday to deliver justice after the U.N. report was issued, but the Foreign Ministry statement stopped short of directly addressing the U.N.'s proposal to set up a special court.

On Monday it said it was setting up a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission to look into atrocities.

The U.N. report, delayed from March to give the new government time to address concerns, found "patterns of grave violations" between 2002 and 2011.

It said Sri Lanka should set up a "hybrid special court integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators" to try war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by both sides.

Broader measures were required on the Indian Ocean island, including reparations to victims and "fundamental reforms of the security sector and justice system".

"NO FIRE ZONES"

Government security forces were implicated in "unlawful killings carried out in a widespread manner against civilians" including ethnic minority Tamil politicians, aid workers and journalists, it said. They allegedly executed LTTE (Tamil Tiger) cadres on May 18, 2009, "some of whom were known to have surrendered".

The report said the security forces used torture and rape, especially when former LTTE members and civilians were detained after fighting ended.

"Not a single perpetrator of sexual violence related to the armed conflict is so far known to have been convicted."

Many attacks in the war's last phase appear to have violated international law, especially "repeated shelling by government forces of hospitals and humanitarian facilities in the densely populated 'No Fire Zones'", the report said.

Sri Lanka's army surrounded the LTTE in a 300-square-km (115-square-mile) slice of jungle in the northeast where 250,000 people were trapped.

"Witnesses gave harrowing descriptions of the carnage, bloodshed and psychological trauma of bombardments in which entire families were killed," it said. "The LTTE caused further distress by forcing adults and children to join their ranks and fight on the front lines."

The LTTE assassinated public officials and dissenting Tamil political figures, and killed civilians in suicide bombings and mine attacks, the report said, addling that they had used child soldiers extensively - a war crime.

According to a U.N. panel report in 2011, up to 40,000 Tamils were killed in a final offensive ordered by then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who crushed the insurgency.

The latest report said it was "likely tens of thousands lost their lives" in the final stages.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; additional reporting by Shihar Aneez in Colombo; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Andrew Heavens)

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