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Military air strikes fuel fear and hate

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The Tamil Tigers do not seem unduly worried over the decimation of a beachfront training camp by this week’s air strikes in Sri Lanka’s north-eastern Trincomalee district.

S Elililan, the local Tiger political chief, says they had come to know of the military air strikes a good three hours before they began and informed the public.

“That is why we had such few casualties,” says Mr Elililan, sitting in his spanking new office, as an aide videotapes our meeting.

Two days of air strikes and shelling in Muthur left 15 people dead and more than 40 wounded - and the Tigers claim they have not lost any of their people.

Nestling in the sands of the wide beach in Sampore in Muthur, the destroyed beachfront LTTE training camp looks pretty rudimentary.

There is a thatched “classroom” where Tigers took lessons and watched television.

Outside on the sand, says my guide Yasodharan, the Tigers underwent six months of rigorous weapons training.

Twenty-five-year-old Tiger Kariavalan, who joined two years ago, expresses anger about the air strikes.

“Rather than suffer and lose our people bit by bit, we can fight once and for all,” he says.

“We are ready for war. We are waiting for orders from our leader. We hope he will give a call to war,” he says.

The damage in Muthur - hit by air strikes and shelling following the suicide attack on the nation’s army chief in Colombo - appears to be limited.

Most of the homes are intact, but outside the LTTE camp we see a gold shop and a house which have been destroyed in the attacks.

The electricity lines of Sampor which were destroyed in the shelling are being repaired by workers of the country’s Ceylon Electricity Board.

There is an effort to bring back things to normality.

The bumpy, red-earth roads of the Tiger-controlled areas are dotted with their health centres, banks, rest houses, post offices, the Tamil Eelam administrative service office, and mills. There are lush farms and red-tiled homes.

But look closely and you find that many homes are empty.

There is a great deal of fear, and most Tamils have fled their homes for makeshift dwellings under trees and in local schools.

For the time being, however, there does not seem to be a shortage of food - local NGOs and the Tamil Relief Organisation are already providing that. German wheat flour and Chinese mackerel in tomato sauce are already being shipped in.

Yasmin Ali Haque, a co-ordinator for Unicef in the area, says 5,600 people who fled Muthur are camped out at a school in Paddalipuram, fearful to go home because of the shelling.

“Adults in this area remember the aerial attacks from the early 1990s but they have never been exposed to shelling. People are very worried and scared,” she says.

Among the anxious families are Amrithalingam and his wife and children, who had just had lunch on Tuesday when they heard a thud. Then shots rang out in the midday heat.

The family huddled in a ditch outside their home until it was over.

Amrithalingam and his wife, Asha - with their four children on a tractor - walked five miles to Paddalipuram and joined other families who had set up camp under a tree.

Sandstorms lash them during the day, while mosquitoes prevent a good night’s sleep.

“We are scared to return. Three neighbours died in the shelling. It looks like the war is returning. But we want peace,” says Asha.

Back at Muthur, Mr Elililan says they are not returning to all-out conflict.

“We are being patient. We have never been this patient in the past after the sort of attack that has happened. Because there’s an environment of peace,” he says.

But peace could be on borrowed time in the Tiger heartland.

“From the beginning we have known war is the only solution,” says Mr Elililan. “Six rounds of talks have not yielded anything.”

It is not going to be easy restoring peace to Sri Lanka.

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