Sri Lanka said Thursday that it was counting on its own how many civilians were slain at the end of its bloody civil war to counter claims that tens of thousands were killed and fend off international calls for a war crimes probe.
Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa also acknowledged for the first time that soldiers may have committed unspecified "crimes." He promised to investigate and punish them.
Both the count of the killed and the admission of misconduct were a major shift for a government that had sworn its soldiers were beyond reproach and insisted for more than two years that not a single civilian was killed by its forces during the final stages of the war.
Rajapaksa's speech to a conference on postwar ethnic reconciliation was the government's latest attempt to show it was taking action on its own and blunt the calls for outside investigations into the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.
Rajapaksa said the census department's count, which is near completion and will be released soon, shows a very small number of civilians died because of military action. He said people who died due to natural causes or accidents, as well as those who fled the country illegally, died fighting for the rebels or were killed by the rebels, were also counted in order to reconcile the number of people unaccounted for.
"It has been possible to identify by name all such persons (dead or missing)," Rajapaksa said.
"As a result of the census, we already know that the real number of the dead and missing is far too small to provide any substance to absurd allegations of genocide and war crimes that have been made," he said.
A U.N. report released in April said tens of thousands of civilians may have been killed in the last months of the decades-long war that a final government offensive ended in May 2009.
Alan Keenan, senior analyst with International Crisis Group, said he is skeptical of Sri Lanka's latest move, calling it an "attempt to short-circuit" calls for an international investigation.
"No government accused by so many credible witnesses of such grave crimes can be relied on to count the number of their own victims," he said.
"The process by which the supposed count has happened is not at all clear, but the conditions under which the census would have been conducted in the north _ an area under effective military occupation by a victorious army accused of the crimes in question _ are not conducive to a fair and accurate count," Keenan said.
Rajapaksa's statement Thursday "finally acknowledges that government forces violated human rights in the context of Sri Lanka's armed conflict," said Yolanda Foster, Sri Lanka expert with rights group Amnesty International.
"Until recently the government claimed it had a 'zero civilian casualty' policy. This claim flew in the face of available evidence and now it seems that the government has abandoned this line of response."
She said the government conducting its own count instead of allowing an international investigation is "simply another delaying tactic."
The government had insisted there were "zero civilian casualties" in that fighting, conceding only in August that civilian deaths did occur but that they were unavoidable.
The U.N. report said most of the casualties came from government shelling and called for an independent international investigation into what it called credible allegations against the government and the Tamil Tigers, who fought for more than 25 years to carve out a separate state for ethnic minority Tamils.
The government has also dismissed as fabrications video footage apparently showing soldiers shooting bound, blindfolded prisoners. Christof Heyns, the U.N.'s independent investigator on extrajudicial killings, said the video was authentic and provided enough evidence to open a war crimes case. Human rights groups have also called for a war crimes probe.
Last year, the government appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which submitted its report to President Mahinda Rajapaksa earlier this week. The government has said it will submit that report to Parliament before making it public.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that while Sri Lankan soldiers in general act professionally, there could have been bad elements.
"It needs to be understood during the 3 1/2 years of humanitarian operation, the Sri Lankan military had to be expanded at a rapid pace. In the circumstances, it is possible that a few individuals who lack the capacity to withstand the pressures of the warfare with the required composure may have been recruited," he said.
He said the government would carry out any recommendations by the Lessons Learnt commission to investigate military abuses and steps for ethnic reconciliation, but he ruled out any international involvement.
"As a sovereign nation with a rich culture and proud history, Sri Lanka does not need external guidance to achieve reconciliation," he said.