Sri Lankan president admits more than 20,000 war-missing are dead

Sri Lanka's president has said for the first time that the more than 20,000 people who went missing during the country's civil war are dead.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who served as a top defence official during the 26-year conflict, made the announcement on Monday and said death certificates would be issued.

He said his decision had been made known to a United Nations resident coordinator last week, but did not elaborate on how he came to the conclusion that all the missing were dead.

"Most of [the missing] had been taken by the Tamil Tiger rebels [LTTE] or forcefully conscripted," the presidential statement said, adding: "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 civil war, which saw Tamil Tiger rebels fighting government forces for independence for the Tamil ethnic minority, ended in a government victory in 2009.

But relatives of the tens of thousands of mostly ethnic Tamil war-missing have spent the years since demanding to know the fate of their loved ones.

Some say hundreds of their family members had not been seen since they were taken away in military buses after the government asked them to surrender those with any link to the rebels toward the end of the conflict.

Since 2015, the Office on Missing Persons has been investigating 23,586 cases from the Sri Lankan war, including 5,000 cases of security forces.

The following year, a law came into effect to allow relatives to be given an interim report if sufficient evidence could be pulled together to designate a person missing.

A final report would be issued at the end of the investigation and would allow relatives to collect either a certificate of absence or a death certificate, dependent on the report's result.