COLOMBO– Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has acknowledged for the first time that more than 23,500 people missing for a decade since the end of the country's protracted Tamil war are dead.
Rajapaksa, who played a key role in the military campaign that crushed the Tamil separatist rebels, told a UN envoy that steps would be taken to finally provide death certificates for those reported missing, his office said.
"President Rajapaksa outlined his plans to address the issue of missing persons," said a statement on the president's meeting with UN resident coordinator Hanaa Singer. "He explained that these missing persons are actually dead."
Some 5,000 security forces are among the 23,500 people never accounted for. The statement said most of the missing civilians had been conscripted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which was crushed in a major offensive that ended in May 2009.
"The families of the missing attest to it. However, they do not know what has become of them and so claim them to be missing," the president said.
Under current law, families cannot access property deeds, bank accounts or inheritances left by missing relatives unless they can conclusively prove they are dead -- an often impossible task.
The last government set up an Office on Missing Persons in 2018 to investigate those never traced after the 37-year Tamil separatist war, as well as during a Marxist uprising.
International rights groups claim at least 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed in the final stages of the separatist war, but the government has disputed the figures.
A government-appointed commission established in August 2013 received 23,586 reports of people missing throughout the drawn-out separatist war. Thousands of people also went missing during a crackdown by security forces and pro-government vigilante groups on Marxist rebels between 1987 and 1990. Several mass graves containing skeletal remains have been found since, but only a handful have ever been identified.