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Sri Lanka divided as panel backs foreign judges to probe war crimes

By Shihar Aneez

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka should bring in international prosecutors and judges to help investigate alleged atrocities in the civil war that ended in 2009, a task force said on Thursday in recommendations that were welcomed by the United Nations.

The Consultation Task Force (CTF), appointed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, said foreign involvement was needed because of a lack of confidence in the local judiciary, which it said did not have the expertise and capacity to prosecute war crimes.

However, President Maithripala Sirisena opposes the involvement of foreign judges, and cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senarathne said on Wednesday the government had clearly told the U.N. that it would not allow them.

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The war crimes issue is highly divisive, seven years after the end of the 26-year conflict between government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The U.N. and rights groups have accused the military of killing thousands of civilians, mostly Tamils, during its final weeks.

The office of U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said on Twitter that he welcomed the CTF's recommendations, especially its "clear backing of a hybrid court" with local and foreign judges.

The opposition led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was president when the government finally defeated the LTTE, has held out against foreign judicial involvement and said his successor is betraying the military for a "Western agenda".

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is the main political party representing Tamils and backed Sirisena in the 2015 presidential election, has demanded foreign judges be brought in, as most similar investigations in the past have failed to prosecute wrongdoers.

The Tamil Tigers were also accused of widespread abuses during the war, such as using child soldiers and targeting civilians with suicide bombers, including an attack on the central bank in 1996 which killed nearly 100 people.

The U.N. launched a probe in 2014 into war crimes allegedly committed by both Sri Lankan state forces and Tamil rebels, saying the government had failed to investigate properly. But

Rajapaksa's government resisted the probe and denied U.N. officials entry to the island nation.

(Reporting by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)