The discovery of a mass grave containing more than 30 skulls in northern Sri Lanka has caused speculation that there may be many more like it, containing the remains of thousands who went missing during the country’s 26-year civil war.
The police have suggested that the Tamil Tiger rebels the military defeated five years ago could be responsible for the grave, which was uncovered near a historic Hindu temple in the district of Mannar.
Sri Lanka is under international pressure to address alleged wartime human rights violations. A failure to investigate the discovery could fuel the anger of Western nations demanding an independent international investigation into suspected abuses.
The remains, which workers stumbled on as they dug up paving, are yet to be identified. It is the first mass grave to be found in the former warzone and is spread over an area measuring about 400sq ft. It is five feet deep.
Dhanajaya Waidyaratne, the judicial medical officer in charge of the excavation, said: “The bodies are buried in several layers. Unfortunately, the top layer of the bodies has been destroyed by the road construction work.”
More than 100,000 people were killed in the 1983-2009 war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government military and thousands, mainly ethnic-minority Tamils, are still unaccounted for.
A United Nations panel said about 40,000 mainly Tamil civilians died in the ferocious final months of the conflict, but Sri Lanka has disputed that figure. Both sides committed atrocities, but army shelling killed most victims, it concluded.
A police spokesman said initial forensic evidence suggested the bodies may have been buried at least 15 years ago.
He said: “This area was controlled by the LTTE for over 20 years and there are reports that hundreds of soldiers went missing in this area. But we don’t know for sure. The investigations are continuing.”
Residents and a religious leader said the area was controlled mainly by the army from 1990.
The Catholic Bishop of Mannar Rayappu Joseph went to inspect the mass grave.
He said yesterday: “This grave has grown-up people and children, and there are some holes in the skulls believed to be from gunshots. We don’t know who killed these people. This is an area that was held by army for a long time. Wherever there has been LTTE or army camps, we must dig.”
A senior military official, who wished to remain anonymous, denied that the area was under army control during the war. He said: “The area changed hands between the LTTE, the Indian Peacekeeping Force and army over time.”
The former political proxy of the Tigers, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which was voted into power in northern provincial polls in September, said the mass grave was the tip of an iceberg and there must be many more.
A spokesman said: “The loss of lives, according to us, is between 75,000 to 150,000. Where are those remains?
“They must be somewhere. If they were put into incinerators and destroyed, we don’t know. But we don’t think more than 100,000 would have been dealt with like that.”
Last year, Sri Lanka set up a presidential commission to investigate a mass grave containing the remains of more than 150 people. The evidence was sent to China for forensic investigations and so far no information has been released.