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Government-Appointed Sri Lankan Panel Probes Civil War

In Sri Lanka, a government-appointed commission has begun probing the final years of a long, drawn out civil war which ended last year. But there is skepticism if the inquiry will adequately address international concerns about human rights abuses during the last stages of the war.

A former peace negotiator with Tamil Tiger rebels, Bernard Gunathilaka, was among the first to give testimony as an eight-member panel started hearings on the civil war, Wednesday.

The military crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels last year, bringing an end to conflict in the country. But the victory was clouded by allegations of human rights abuses by the rebels and government forces and charges that thousands of Tamil civilians were killed in the last stages of the conflict.

The government says its soldiers did not commit any war crimes. It has turned down all international calls for an independent probe and says any concerns on the issue will be addressed by the inquiry commission it has appointed.

The panel has been asked to report to President Mahinda Rajapakse within six months.

However, the government's critics are skeptical whether the probe will be credible.

The head of the Colombo's National Peace Council, Jehan Perera, says the skepticism is based on the track record of previous commissions appointed by the government. "The government's position is very clear, that this is a very serious effort on the part of the government," said Perera. "But other independent actors as well as international human rights groups have expressed their concern that previous commissions appointed by the Sri Lankan government either never reached a conclusion; their reports were never published; or they comprised people who were too partisan with the government to come up with a really independent assessment."

The panel will examine why a truce between the government and Tamil Tigers in 2002 collapsed and who was responsible.

The latest to join demands for an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes is a group of 57 U.S. lawmakers. On Tuesday, they wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to push for an independent inquiry saying the government appointed commission had a narrow scope and no mandate to investigate abuses.

But political analysts say the Sri Lankan government is unlikely to change its stand. It has already refused to cooperate with a three-member panel established by the United Nations secretary-general to advise him on the alleged abuses.