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Conflict still dominates life in Tamil areas

Residents of this thin strip of Tamil Tiger-held territory look across to government-held land, just a few hundred meters away across a no-man’s land of mined scrub and lagoons, and regard it with a mixture of envy and fear.



A 2002 truce halted 20 years of civil war in Sri Lanka and left the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in control of a seventh of the island in the minority Tamil-dominated north and east.



“We need proper peace,” 24-year-old Tamil fisherman Santhalingam Povarajah told Reuters through a translator. “We are safe because the LTTE is here. But we need more. We cannot go out and fish in case the navy take us away.”



Passing the Tiger checkpoint on the southern edge of government-held Trincomalee harbor, the roads become worse, the houses more basic and the poverty more serious. On the beach near the village of Karakadaichani, in sight of Sri Lanka army positions, women scrabble in the sand to collect tiny shellfish to eat.



The war left the north and east much poorer than the rest of the country. Some aid workers describe it as “Africa poor”.



The Tiger-held east is visibly less developed than the rebels’ northern heartland, but the contrast with the richer, boutique and hotel-lined roads along the majority-Sinhalese south and west coasts is striking.



The Tigers say the government is keeping development aid for the south, including funds donated after the 2004 tsunami. But some officials say the Tigers continue arming for war and cannot be trusted with development cash, and a post-tsunami aid sharing deal was blocked by the courts.



In the meantime, local government officials report to both LTTE and state authorities, but checkpoints hamper trade and residents say recent violence made things worse.



A string of suspected LTTE attacks on the military in December and January pushed the island to the brink of war, with new restrictions imposed on fishermen after an apparent LTTE suicide attack sank a naval gunboat and killed 13 sailors.



Fishing and farming are the only significant industry in LTTE territory, which the Tigers hope will one day be the economic foundation of a separate Tamil homeland.



But in Karakadaichani, fishermen say they dare not take out large new fishing boats donated by aid agencies after the tsunami for fear of arrest or harassment by the Navy, and some have temporarily given up fishing for manual work.



Tensions fell after the two sides agreed to meet last week in Geneva, and residents on both sides of the lines say they hope a new war has been averted. But restrictions remain and tales of military abuse, denied by the army, scare many Tamils.



In January, five young men were found dead on the beach in Trincomalee. The army initially said they were Tiger sympathizers who accidentally blew themselves up, but truce monitors found they had all been shot in the head.



“You can go to school here but there is no higher education,” says Santhalingam, who himself missed formal education because of the war. “You have to go to the university in Trincomalee and that is dangerous. Two of the five who were killed were students from here.”



But some do go and others will leave Sri Lanka, joining the vast Tamil diaspora in Europe, Canada or elsewhere. The Tigers say overseas Tamils help fund development in their areas, but deny they are also financing a LTTE military buildup.



With LTTE spies said to be everywhere, no-one will criticize the Tigers -- indeed, almost without exception, young men pledge loyalty and say they would fight for them if war comes. But for many, economic progress is most important.



“It is not about the government or the LTTE,” says 38-year-old grocer Velu Sathyan in Sampoor, the local Tiger headquarters, a dusty town of a couple of streets dominated by memorials to the rebel war dead. “It is my native place and I want to see it developed.”