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Slain aid workers mourned as probe drags

Action Against Hunger, the international aid agency, who lost seventeen workers in August in a massacre blamed on Sri Lankan troops held a commemoration service last Monday for the victims.

ACF also pressed for observers and experts independent of the Sri Lankan government to be involved in the investigation into the massacre, which is to be conducted under the aegis of President Mahinda Rajapakse.

ACF staff in Colombo released pigeons on Nov. 6 to commemorate the deaths of 17 of their colleagues shot dead by Sri Lankan troops three months previously. Photo Sanka Vidanagama/AFP/Getty Images.

In keeping with Sri Lankan tradition, according to which families come together to commemorate a death after three months- a memorial service was organised in Colombo in presence of ACF members, representatives of civil society, the UN and local and international NGOs working in Sri Lanka.

ACF also requested all members of the ACF International Network in its 40 countries of intervention, as well as the larger humanitarian community, to observe a minute's silence on Monday, 6th November 2006, at 5 pm (local time).

“On 4th August 2006, a massacre unprecedented in the history of NGO's was committed against humanitarian aid workers,” ACF said in a statement.

On August 6, 2006, the seventeen ACF were found shot dead execution style at the organisation's base in Muttur.

Fifteen had been lined up on the floor and shot. Two were found shot dead in a vehicle outside.

All but one of the workers – an ethnic Muslim – were Tamils.

The 13 men and four women, aged 23 to 54, worked mostly as engineers on water sanitation and farm projects for the charity.

International Ceasefire monitors have blamed Sri Lankan troops who recaptured Muttur from the Tamil Tigers in early August for the killings.

Following the discovery massacre, Sri Lankan military forces blocked off the area and prevented ACF officials and international ceasefire monitors from retrieving the bodies of the victims.

The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) said it "cannot find reasons for the restrictions of movements... acceptable, thereby strongly indicating the Government of Sri Lanka's (GoSL) eagerness to conceal the matter from the SLMM".

“When NGO employees are targeted, the whole humanitarian community is directly affected. If the independence and neutrality of humanitarian workers is not respected, then their activities are undermined.”

ACF said it “reaffirms its commitment to ensure that the official investigation progresses and that all evidence is brought to light about the circumstances surrounding the massacre.

“From the outset, Action Against Hunger has done its utmost to ensure that those responsible for the massacre are identified and brought to justice.”

“Action Against Hunger is following the investigation closely and has mobilised its partners, the international community,” the NGO said.

The massacre was the worst attack on humanitarian workers since a suicide bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003 killed 22 UN staff.

As part of the investigation, 11 bodies were exhumed and transferred to Colombo on October 18 for an autopsy.

The post-mortems are taking place under the observation of Australian experts.

The earlier autopsies, undertaken by the government, were inconclusive.

But staff at the Trincomalee Hospital reportedly complained against the unusual procedure for performing autopsies of the slain workers.

The hospital's judicial medical officer was reportedly on leave while the government brought in a replacement from Anuradhapura rather than allowing the hospital director to conduct the autopsies.

Under renewed international pressure, the government had no other option but to exhume the dead bodies and conduct autopsies in presence of the Australian observers.

According to Sri Lankan law, the post-mortem report should be transferred to the magistrate in charge of the case, with the conclusions to be published during the next hearing.

In theory, the autopsy could reveal evidence that point toward the killers, such as the type of ammunition used.

But ACF is sceptical.

“Perhaps. But in this kind of situation we have to be very cautious because it can be manipulated," said Benoit Miribel, ACF's general director.

“So you never know who has used these arms. It could be one element. But the key factor to know the truth will be through the eye-witnesses."

Stung by international criticism, the Sri Lankan government has reluctantly agreed to allow international observers to participate in its investigations.

But not before lashing out at the SLMM and its then head, Maj. Gen. Ulf Henricsson and rejecting their findings.

The inquest began in Muttur but has since been transferred twice.

The investigation, along with probes into several other major incidents of violence is to be overseen by a committee to be appointed by President Rajapakse.

The government had initially, under intense international pressure, agreed to an independent international investigating committee.

But Colombo later withdrew the offer and the President has agreed to a committee under his purview with international participation.

The move has been criticised by human rights groups, including the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR).

President Rajapakse has made it clear that the so-called International Commission of Inquiry is being established essentially “in the light of attempts being made in various quarters to discredit the Government, Security Forces and the Police,” ACHR said.

“In other words, the government is setting up the International Commission of Inquiry to give ‘credit’ to [itself] as the SLMM has allegedly been discrediting it.”

In its statement last week, ACF, was careful not to reject the inquiry, but reiterated the international observers should be independent and free to comment publicly about the investigation.

“The creation of an investigatory commission including Sri Lankan representatives and international observers, under the aegis of the president, is a step that would demonstrate the will to ensure transparency while respecting the sovereignty of the Sri Lankan State,” ACF said.

“However, the international observers should be independent and recognised as not only having the mandate to observe, but also the freedom to make public their conclusions.”

The Muttur massacre should be at the top of the list of priorities for any such investigatory commission that is created, ACF argued..

“In any case, in view of the seriousness of the Muttur massacre and what is at stake for the international humanitarian community, any initiative that could help bring the truth to light should not be neglected.”