Thursday, July 9, 2009

Doctors say 'pressured' by Tigers to inflate Sri Lanka tolls

COLOMBO (AFP) — Sri Lankan doctors arrested for allegedly spreading rebel propaganda before the defeat of the Tamil Tigers told reporters here Wednesday that they were pressured to inflate death tolls.

A five-member team of doctors who worked inside the shrinking rebel-held territory during the final stages of the war have been in detention since May, but were brought before reporters for the first time Wednesday.

The government has accused them of putting out propaganda for the now-defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but the United Nations and the International Red Cross relied heavily on them to coordinate relief.

"The LTTE forced us to give figures (to the media)," doctor Thurairaja Varatharajah said at the government's Media Centre for National Security auditorium. "Figures were exaggerated due to LTTE pressure."
He said they were forced to comply because they were in an LTTE-controlled area. "We had to do what the LTTE told us," he said.

"Now, we are free from any pressure. We can say the truth," Varatharajah said when asked if they were now under any influence from authorities regarding death tolls.

Varatharajah said between 350 and 400 civilians were killed in fighting in the last month of battle while a similar number perished between January and April.

The UN reported that over 7,000 civilians may have perished in the fighting during this year while the government insisted that not a single civilian was killed by its own troops.

The five doctors were arrested when they crossed over to government territory in May just before the leadership of the LTTE was declared wiped out.

The doctors are under police custody and the authorities have vowed to prosecute them although they have not been formally charged.

The government had prevented journalists and international monitors accessing the war zone, where the International Committee of the Red Cross reported an "unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe".

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