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Sri Lanka enacts witness protection law before war crimes probe

By Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez

Sri Lankan Tamils hold pictures of family members who disappeared during the war against the LTTE during a protest in Jaffna

Sri Lankan Tamils hold pictures of family members who disappeared during the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during a protest in Jaffna, about 400 km (250 miles) north of Colombo November 15, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer/Files

By Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka has adopted a witness protection law ahead of an investigation into suspected human rights abuses in a 26-year civil war which foreign governments have said is necessary for a reconciliation with ethnic minority Tamils.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has separately investigated war crimes in the final stages of the war against Tamil separatists but this week it deferred its report, saying Colombo had shown a new willingness to open up to scrutiny.

Under the law passed by the Sri Lankan parliament late on Thursday, the government will set up safe houses for witnesses giving testimony to the inquiry commission.

"This will allow people to give evidence and participate in the domestic probe," Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Ajith Perera said.

The United Nations estimated in a 2011 report that about 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final weeks of the war that ended in 2009, mostly by the army. The government of the majority Sinhalese country rejected that assertion.

But the new administration that took power last month after an election said it was ready for a new investigation that would bring in foreign experts if necessary.

"The new law will add credibility to the domestic probe," a foreign ministry official said.

Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was ousted in a surprise election defeat in January, had refused to cooperate with any U.N. investigation.

(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Robert Birsel)


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