The massacre of 17 aid workers in war-torn Sri Lanka this month was almost certainly committed by government troops, international cease-fire monitors said Wednesday.
The independent Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission concluded that “there cannot be any other armed groups than the security forces who could actually have been behind” the Aug. 4 execution-style killings, which caused an international outcry.
The government in Colombo, the capital, swiftly dismissed the group’s conclusion as baseless.
The victims, employees of the international humanitarian group Action Against Hunger, were working on tsunami relief projects in northeastern Sri Lanka. The bodies of 15 workers were found facedown, with gunshot wounds, in the aid organization’s office in the town of Mutur. Two other bodies were discovered days later in a car nearby.
All but one of the dead were minority ethnic Tamils, which prompted suspicion that the Sri Lankan army, dominated by the majority Sinhalese and accused of previous abuses, was responsible. At the time, soldiers in the area were battling Tamil Tiger rebels, who want to establish an independent homeland.
The monitoring mission, whose members come from Northern European nations, said confidential conversations with “highly reliable sources” strongly suggested military involvement. The government’s refusal to give the monitors access to the crime scene indicated “eagerness to conceal the matter,” the group said.
“It’s important to have an impartial investigation into this,” said Ulf Henricsson of Sweden, director of the truce monitors. “Of course, it must be an independent international commission. We don’t trust an investigation either from the government” or from the rebels. He called the killings “a clear war crime.”
Keheliya Rambukwella, a spokesman for the government, dismissed the group’s findings. “We totally deny this,” he said. “This is a very unprofessional statement.”
He said monitors were barred from the area because of safety concerns and he noted that the government had invited foreign experts to observe the autopsies.
The government blames the Tamil Tigers for the massacre. Results of its investigation are expected in a few days, Rambukwella said.
In France, where Action Against Hunger was founded, the humanitarian group issued a statement saying that it had “taken note” of the monitoring mission’s findings, which it hoped would be considered in the official inquiry.
It is the organization’s “wish that all light be shed on the circumstances and culpability surrounding the slaughter in Mutur,” the group said.
The organization has suspended its aid programs in Sri Lanka and recalled workers from the war-torn north and east of the island nation, located off the southern coast of India.
The slayings stunned a country accustomed to the brutalities of a long civil war that many thought had ended with a cease-fire four years ago.
Since December, fighting between government forces and the Tamil Tigers has killed hundreds of people, half of them civilians, and forced thousands to flee their homes.
The battle for Mutur, near the northeastern port city of Trincomalee, saw some of the fiercest clashes of the last nine months. The two sides traded gunfire and artillery barrages, killing at least 20 residents. The government says it controls Mutur.
Fighting continues in the east and on the Jaffna peninsula in the north, the scene of repeated shelling and airstrikes. Most foreigners have left the Trincomalee area, and new skirmishes erupted this week over control of the town of Sampur.