(UPI) — Sri Lanka is granting what amounts to amnesty to 60,000 army soldiers who deserted during the island nation’s 30-year civil war against Tamil separatists. The deserters will be “de-listed,” army spokesman Brig. Nihal Hapuarachchi said.
“These are soldiers who had deserted their ranks since 1982. Soldiers who had not reported back to service are considered deserters and they will now be de-listed from the army,” he said.
However, the military said it will continue to pursue several hundred deserters who are believed to have been or are still involved in criminal activity.
“We are now mainly focusing on this small number only. We want the soldiers who were involved in criminal activity after deserting their ranks to be arrested,” Hapuarachchi said.
Among the 60,000 are around 5,000 who, although de-listed, must report to their bases for work because of unpaid financial loans.
Desertion has been a problem for the mostly Sinhalese army in its fight against the rebels, consisting mostly of Tamil Tiger members.
The army defeated the Tamil Tigers — officially called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — 2 1/2 years ago but has kept its standing army of around 200,000 and desertions have continued.
The military remains concerned about a possible re-ignition of hostilities.
In March, Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne told the Sri Lankan Parliament the Tigers were operating three training camps in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The state is the nearest part of India to Sri Lanka — only 33 miles across the Palk Strait. It is also home to many ethnic Tamils.
Jayaratne said intelligence reports indicated one of the camps was training rebels to assassinate officials in Sri Lanka.
“Their next target is to create small-scale attacks,” he said. “The entire nation must be ready to face this threat.”
However, government spokesmen were quick to downplay his remarks as based on out-of-date information.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs also “categorically” denied the camps existed. “Such a reference is indeed unfortunate and we urge the government of Sri Lanka to desist from reacting to speculative and uncorroborated reports,” a statement said.
Sri Lanka’s army and government remain sensitive to criticism of how it fought the Tamil Tigers in what was one of Asia’s most brutal conflicts and also since the war ended.
This week a Sri Lankan delegation told the U.N. Committee against Torture that the country is acting to curb suspected torture committed by its security forces.
The U.N. panel questioned Sri Lanka over accusations of torture by police, harassment of lawyers and journalists, deaths in state custody and secret detention centers. It also probed into the disappearances of thousands of people, many of them Tamils.
Also this week, Freedom from Torture, a United Kingdom charity working with victims of torture, handed a report on Sri Lanka to the United Nations.
Doctors at the organization reviewed 35 cases — 33 involving Tamils — out of more than 300 cases referred to the charity’s clinics over the past two years.
The submission focuses exclusively on cases of torture committed after 2009.
“Torture perpetrated by state actors within both the military and police has continued in Sri Lanka after the conflict ended in May 2009 and is still occurring in 2011,” the report said.
“These cases demonstrate the widespread and continuing use of a large number of unofficial detention facilities in which many of the individuals … were held.