UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) ? Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday denied media reports the United Nations has covered up a high civilian death toll during the bloody final phase of Sri Lanka's war against Tamil Tiger rebels.
Last week the French newspaper Le Monde first reported that an unofficial and unverified U.N. tally for civilian deaths in the final months of the government's siege against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) exceeded 20,000.
The British newspaper The Times later reported the same figure, writing in an editorial that "the U.N. has no right to collude in suppressing the appalling evidence" of a government-executed massacre of civilians in northeastern Sri Lanka.
Ban vehemently rejected the notion that the world body had been involved in a cover-up.
"I categorically reject -- repeat, categorically -- any suggestion that the United Nations has deliberately underestimated any figures," he said in a speech to the General Assembly. "Let me also say, whatever the total, the casualties in the conflict were unacceptably high."
Last week U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes disputed the 20,000 figure, saying it was based on questionable assumptions and that the final death toll may never be known.
"That figure has no status as far as we're concerned," Holmes told Reuters. "It may be right, it may be wrong, it may be far too high, it may even be too low. But we honestly don't know. We've always said an investigation would be a good idea."
So far the United Nations has no plans for an investigation of the Sri Lanka war. The U.N. Human Rights Council last month decided not to have any probe of possible war crimes committed during the months-long siege against the LTTE zone.
ESTIMATES "NOT CONSISTENT" WITH U.N. DATA
In the final months of the war, the civilian death rate rose alarmingly as government forces surrounded the LTTE, who retreated to a tiny strip of coast in northeastern Sri Lanka, where the United Nations says they kept hundreds of thousands of civilians as human shields.
During that siege, Holmes repeatedly criticized the government for shelling areas where civilians were trapped, warning that it could lead to a "bloodbath". He also criticized the LTTE for treating innocent civilians as hostages. Both sides rejected the U.N. charges.
Holmes said the 20,000 figure during the final phase was based on an unconfirmed U.N. estimate of around 7,000 civilian deaths through the end of April and added roughly 1,000 more per day after that.
Holmes said the initial figure of 7,000 deaths had been deemed far too questionable for official publication because the world body was not in a position to calculate a reliable death count. It was not really present in the battle zone, he said.
Ban expanded on this point in his speech to the General Assembly, insisting that the "final total is not yet known."
"Most of these figures do not emanate from the U.N. and most are not consistent with the information at our disposal," he said.
The United Nations believes that anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 people died in what was one of Asia's longest modern wars, erupting in earnest in 1983 when the LTTE began to fight for a separate state for Sri Lanka's minority Tamils.