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Fighting shatters strained ethnic relations

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Residents who fled fighting in northeast Sri Lanka on foot accused both government troops and Tamil Tigers of beating and seizing civilians as they escaped - while each side accuses the other of massacres.

The first real ground fighting since a 2002 truce and the resulting mass population movement have shattered already strained relations between the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities.

“Every day, we are afraid,” said 62-year-old laborer Mari Thurajah, a minority Tamil from the mainly Muslim town of Mutur, most of whose population fled after heavy fighting. “In the past, all the people there were together, but now we cannot trust them.”

Fearing reprisals from Muslims, Thurajah and his family decided not to try and stay in the camps that now house the population of Mutur but instead pushed on to a Tamil school in Trincomalee, where hundreds now stay in the hope of getting aid.

A Tiger attack last week on the town of Mutur, north of a LTTE-held water supply the government is fighting to control, triggered the exodus of thousands of people, mainly Muslims but also minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese.

Access to the town is almost impossible, but the first aid group to arrive found the bodies of 15 mostly Tamil tsunami aid staff from a French charity who had been executed in their office -- most of them shot in the head. The Tigers and the army each blame the other (see separate story).

Many of the Tamils are said to have fled into areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

LTTE areas have been heavily bombed and shelled and the Tigers said 15 civilians died on Sunday.

Others fled south with the column of Muslims, but say they were harassed and beaten by the Sri Lanka Army. Some are still missing. Witnesses told Reuters that local Muslims helped the military identify suspected LTTE sympathizers amongst the Tamils.

“They took the children from the fathers and then took some of the men away,” said 28-year-old mother Sathisawaran Thirumagal. “Some of them were let go but others were taken away in an army vehicle. We do not know what happened to them.”

The military say they were worried about Tigers infiltrating government territory mingled among the displaced people. Aid workers say most of the missing appear to be in police stations but some may have vanished.

Truce monitors said earlier in the year that troops were involved in extrajudicial killings of Tamil civilians. In Trincomalee, one Tamil woman said her son disappeared this weekend soon after they arrived in a temporary camp.

Muslims who fled Mutur tell similar stories, except they say their abductors and abusers were Tiger fighters. The army says it believes 100 Muslims were massacred - a charge the rebels deny (see separate story).

But with many people still unregistered and scattered, tracking who is actually missing may take days. There are reports of bodies lying off the main road south of Mutur but few have dared yet investigate due to ongoing violence.

And in a country where abuses on both sides have been reported frequently in two decades of war, some simply do not want to look too closely.

“It is a very cruel way of fighting,” said a Tamil priest. “But you do not want to be seen talking about it or something might happen to you.”