By C. Bryson Hull
COLOMBO (Reuters) - The Sri Lankan panel probing the end of the island's 25-year war found the military did not deliberately target civilians, but said a "considerable" number were killed in the crossfire and urged the prosecution of soldiers found guilty of misconduct.
The sweeping findings of the presidentially-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which touch on everything from the war's conduct to recommendations on political reconciliation, were published after submission of its 388-page report to parliament Friday.
Western governments urging further investigation have made the LLRC report's credibility and the government's follow-through crucial yardsticks of whether an international war crimes probe should be instituted.
The panel of eminent Sri Lankan legal scholars had a mandate to look at the period spanning a 2002 cease-fire with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that failed in 2006, culminating in a 34-month military campaign that ended in government victory in May 2009.
"The Commission is satisfied that the military strategy that was adopted to secure the LTTE-held areas was one that was carefully conceived, in which the protection of the civilian population was given the highest priority," the report said.
The report, the result of thousands of interviews and multiple public hearings since mid-2010, is Sri Lanka's answer to a U.N. report earlier this year that found "credible allegations" of possible war crimes in the last months of the war with the separatist LTTE.
The U.N. report, which Sri Lanka rejected, urged investigation of possible war crimes by both sides, including the shelling of hospitals and army-declared no-fire zones (NFZ).
"In the NFZ, the LTTE comes and places their guns and when the LTTE comes and place their guns in the midst of the people and they start firing at the Army, then the firing is returned," a civilian told the LLRC.
The Sri Lankan panel said it could not establish the number of civilian casualties, nor could not determine who was responsible for shelling hospitals. It instead urged swift recompense to the families of those hurt or killed.
It criticized the LTTE for holding civilians by force as human shields as troops bore down, and said the military had followed the principle of proportionality -- key to determining whether a military action is legitimate or a war crime -- in exchanging fire over the no-fire zones or hospitals.
"It would also be reasonable to conclude that there appears to have been a bona fide expectation that an attack on LTTE gun positions would make a relevant and proportional contribution to the objective of the military attack involved," the report said.
The panel also urged the government to look into reported cases of military misconduct, of which it listed four, and investigate the disappearances of LTTE leaders and fighters who surrendered.
"Investigation into these incidents and where necessary instituting prosecutions is an imperative also to clear the good name of the army who have by and large conducted themselves in an exemplary manner in the surrender process," the LLRC said.
Sri Lanka has a long history of government probes which have failed to bring anyone to book for atrocities, a fact rights lobbies seized upon in refusing an LLRC invitation to testify.
"Continued failure to give effect to such critical recommendations of past commissions gives rise to understandable criticism and skepticism regarding government-appointed commissions, from which the LLRC has not been spared," it warned.
(Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)