Sri Lanka probes bodies found in shallow graves
COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lankan police were investigating the gruesome discovery of 16 bullet-riddled bodies dumped in shallow graves in a government-controlled part of the island.
The bodies were found on Thursday evening by villagers in the district of Anuradhapura, 206 kilometres (130 miles) north of the capital Colombo.
The victims had been blindfolded, tied up and shot, officials said.
'We are now investigating to initially establish the identity of the victims,' said a senior officer in Anuradhapura, who declined to be named. 'We have also increased security in the area.'
Local police officials said they believed the victims had been killed elsewhere and that the graves were hurriedly dug by the side of a lonely stretch of road.
A local hospital source, who also asked not to be named, said autopsies will be performed by Saturday.
Puhul Hora Karin Daney
The defence ministry immediately blamed Tamil Tiger rebels, who control a large area further to the north and are fighting for independence from the island's ethnic Sinhalese majority in a drawn-out and bloody conflict.
In a statement, the ministry said the victims were believed to be civilians who had been 'searching for their cattle' only to be killed by 'suspected LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) terrorists.'
But local residents said there had been no reports of such a large group going missing in the area.
On Thursday, government media officials asked local radio and television stations not to broadcast the report of the mass graves, and some stations complied, pulling the story from their prime time news bulletins.
The work of the press is severely restricted in Sri Lanka, with reporters systematically barred by the government from travelling to front-line areas and rebel-held territory.
The discovery is certain to increase concern over the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and the impact of an increasingly dirty war between the government and the Tamil Tigers in which both sides are accused of killing civilians.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have already expressed fears that more civilians could be killed following the government's decision this month to pull out of a ceasefire with the rebels.
The United Nations human rights body has also been demanding it be allowed to establish a permanent presence in Sri Lanka to monitor human rights, although the government has furiously rejected the demand.
Mass graves have been previously found in Sri Lanka's embattled northern regions, and several people killed execution-style were also found in and around the capital last year.