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Outrage as Sri Lanka dismisses TRO ‘claims’

The Sri Lankan government’s dismissive response to complaints last week that several aid workers of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) have been kidnapped by Army-backed paramilitaries have sparked outraged amongst Tamils and have deepened acrimony ahead of negotiations with the Liberation Tigers.

Seven TRO staffers are still missing one week after they were intercepted and abducted whilst traveling in two separate groups in Sri Lanka’s volatile east. Three others who returned home after being released by the paramilitaries are being coerced by the police into denying reports of the abductions, reports said.

However the Sri Lankan government rejected involvement and suggested the incidents were being staged by the LTTE to avoid forthcoming talks in Geneva. The Tigers this week confirmed they would be attending the talks on February 22 and 23 on stabilizing the fraying ceasefire agreement.

And amid frantic appeals by the TRO and Tamil community groups to the international community to take up the matter with the Sri Lankan government, Colombo dismissed the TRO’s complaints as fabricated.

“It appears that a campaign of terror has been unleashed on TRO personnel in the NorthEast,” the charity said in a frantic statements issued Tuesday last week immediately after the abductions.

One group of five staffers - four personnel from the TRO’s Pre School Education Development Center (PSEDC) personnel and their driver – went missing last Tuesday.

Earlier, fifteen TRO staff members traveling from their Batticaloa office to Vavuniya for training were stopped by paramilitary personnel after the SLA checkpoint Welikanda, (Polunnaruwa District).

Five TRO members – all experienced aid workers - were dragged out and forced into the white van the others – recent recruits enroute for training - were assaulted and forced to turn back to Batticaloa.

The TRO says the staff disappeared in areas widely said to be strongholds of the Karuna group, a paramilitary group led by former Tiger commander Karuna Amman who defected to the Sri Lanka military in April 2004 following the collapse of his rebellion against the LTTE.

Since then several LTTE cadres and supporters, paramilitaries and security forces personnel have been killed in campaign by Karuna with the backing of the Army in what has come to be characterized as a ‘shadow war.’

In the past week there have been hartals (strike protests) and demonstrations in several parts of the Northeast and the Tamil media has bitterly criticized the government, warning that Colombo’s bona fides ahead of talks in Geneva this month are suspect.

The Uthayan, the mass circulation Jaffna based daily, in its editorial Monday warned of the potentially dangerous consequences of the attitude being displayed by the Sri Lankan Government insisting on its innocence and not taking urgent action to secure the release of the seven aid workers.

The UN agencies in Sri Lanka said they “deplore the reported abduction of 10 humanitarian aid workers.”

Pointing out the TRO was “an aid organization registered with the government,” the UN agencies noted: “These are humanitarian aid workers who devote their professional lives to serving those in need. Therefore, they have the right to respect and protection from harm.”

FORUT, a Norwegian non-Governmental Organizaton that works in Sri Lanka, this week joined the mainly Tamil clamour for action, saying it “condemns strongly the abduction of 10 aid workers from TRO.”

“Five of them were abducted on their way to a meeting organised by FORUT in Kilinochchi,” the NGO said. “They were on a mission to the Batticaloa District on behalf of the Norwegian Refugee Council and Save the Children Sri Lanka when they were abducted.”

Saying it condemns “any attack on aid workers, regardless of whether they are local or international,” FORUT demanded “all aid workers who are still not released should be released immediately, and that the Srilankan policy gives highest priority to the investigation of the abductions.”

However Sri Lanka’s government insists the military is without blame and questioned the veracity of the claims – even after three of the first group of abductees were released – first two and then another.

Criticising the TRO as an organisation “with links to the LTTE” Sri Lankan military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe said last week reports of the abductions were false allegations meant to discredit the security forces.

When two women aid workers, against paramilitary warnings to be silent, went to file a police report at the insistence of government authorities, they were held at the Batticaloa Police station and forced to sign an unread statement, TRO officials said.

“They were not allowed to read the statement, but were asked to sign it and that their request for a copy of the statement was turned down,” TRO spokesman Arjunan Ethirweerasingam said.

“Colombo has placed the lives of the remaining 8 workers in danger by its failure to alert the state structures in a timely manner to secure the release of the workers,” he told reporters after the first two releases.

“Instead of co-operating with TRO officials and to work actively to resolve this urgent matter, Colombo is engaging in politically motivated disinformation campaign to discredit [us].”

The head of the TRO, Mr. K. P. Regi, told reporters that his staff are making arrangements to get the three released TRO workers to register complaint with the Human Rights Commission (HRC).

On Monday, the entire Batticaloa district observed a shut down protest against the abductions. The protest, called by the employees of local and foreign NGOs, who abstained from work, also drew support from private businesses and public services. Shops and banks remained closed. Public offices and schools were deserted.

Protestors burnt tires and blocked roads in several parts of Batticaloa District. Special Task Force (STF), Sri Lanka Army (SLA) troopers and Police intensified patrolling on the streets of Batticaloa town.

On Saturday Tamil residents in the districts of Trincomalee and Mannar observed a general shut down. The hartal on Sri Lanka’s Independence Day protested the wider harrasment of Tamils by the Sinhala-dominated security forces. On Thursday, there had been another demonstration by residents of Mannar and TRO workers in the western district.

Several civilians sustained minor injuries when STF troops opened fire at civilians observing hartal in Thirukovil area in Akkaraipattu last Friday against the abductions of the TRO staff.

Protesters burnt tyres and set up road blocks across the highway when STF opened fire for more than five minutes. Akkaraipattu, Thirukkovil, Tambiluvil and Pothuvil areas came to complete standstill.

Amid simmering anger, Tamil militia - which has claimed a string of lethal attacks against the Sri Lanka security forces in December and January - threatened to break off a self-imposed truce offered when Norway announced talks between Sri Lanka and the LTTE would take place this month.

Tamil media have warned that the threat by Tamil militia, which many say are linked to the LTTE, to attack the security forces should be taken seriously.

One group, ‘Upsurging People’s Force’, warned this weekend: ‘‘we cannot any more tolerate our people being killed and oppressed. It is no longer possible to be patient. Therefore we beg the international community and the Liberation Tigers to forgive us.”

“If the government maintains it has no connections to the suspects [in the abduction], the Tamils may be forced to handle the paramilitaries directly,” the Uthayan said. “In this context, we have to view the announcement made by the ‘Upsurging People’s Force’.”

This could kick start a spiral of violence that could undermine the talks in Geneva, the Uthayan said, expressing a concern shared by many.

Urging swift government action over the abductions, FORUT also cautioned this week “it is particularly important that this kind of criminal activity does not become a cause for revenge and escalation of violence in a situation where the ceasefire agreement is fragile.”

In a statement issued swiftly on reports of the abductions, the United States Embassy in Colombo said it was “concerned” and urged the government to “rapidly investigate these allegations.”

The US Embassy added “[we] again calls on all parties to exercise restraint and calm, especially in the run-up to the cease-fire talks in Geneva.”

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