By Sarah Peter
CASTRIES, St. Lucia (Reuters) - The United States has suspended assistance to the police department of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia as a result of allegations of serious human rights violations, the State Department confirmed on Thursday.
The government of St. Lucia was officially notified of the decision last Friday, the State Department said in a statement.
"The Department of State has made a policy decision to withdraw training and material assistance to the Royal St. Lucia Police force due to credible allegations of gross human rights violations," the statement said.
The island's prime minister, Kenny Anthony, acknowledged the cut off during an address to the nation on Tuesday evening, citing a U.S. law, known as the Leahy amendment after its principal sponsor, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, which bars aid to foreign security forces accused of human rights violations.
Neither the State Department nor the St. Lucia government was immediately available to give the amount of the assistance.
It was unclear whether the U.S. action would have a significant impact on the small island of 163,000 inhabitants in the eastern Caribbean whose police force suffers from limited resources and is heavily dependent on foreign aid.
The allegations stem from 12 killings committed between 2010 and 2011, some of which were committed by an "ad hoc task force within the police department," a U.S. State Department Human Rights Report said.
The alleged extra-judicial killings stemmed from the circulation of a hit list targeting persons deemed to be criminals. Five suspects whose names were on that list were shot and killed during police operations.
Anthony, during his speech on Tuesday, confirmed seeing such a list while he was in the opposition.
The killings occurred during a government led by the United Workers Party under the leadership of then Prime Minister Stephenson King.
At the time, King issued a warning to criminals prior to the commencement of a police action, dubbed Operation Restore Confidence, saying they would be "hunted down," Anthony noted in his speech.
The prime minister promised to take immediate action to deal with the matter. "It is in our vital interest to maintain close ties of cooperation with the United States in security matters," he said, adding that he has invited CARICOM, the regional Caribbean community of nations, to identify three senior investigators to probe the killings.
"The investigators will be asked to evaluate all available evidence and determine whether or not these matters warrant further action," he said.
Anthony also said he planned to draw up new legislation to investigate extra-judicial police killings. "This measure is needed to ensure that a mechanism exists to deal with such situations in the future, should such unexplained or suspicious deaths occur."
(Reporting by Sarah Peter; Edited by David Adams and Eric Beech)