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Sri Lanka defiant over aid massacre charge

Accused by international ceasefire monitors of being responsible for the massacre of 17 aid workers, Sri Lanka reacted with indignation, rejecting the findings and launching a blistering personal attack the outgoing head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), Swedish Maj. Gen. Ulf Henricson.

And whilst its senior representatives lambasted the SLMM, the Sri Lankan government slapped new restrictions on other international aid workers. Meanwhile, reflecting international reaction to the SLMM’s findings, the United Nations threatened to stop its agencies’ activities in the country, a warning it subsequently toned down.

In a damning report published Wednesday August 31, Maj. Gen. Henricsson blamed Sri Lankan security forces for the execution style killings a month ago of 16 Tamil and one Muslim staff of international aid agency Action Contre La Faim.

The killings have been described as the worst mass murder of aid staff since a 2003 bomb attack on the United Nations compound in Baghdad.

They took place after Sri Lankan security forces took control of the eastern town of Muttur after three days of fierce fighting with the Tamil Tigers.

Called the massacre a “committed act of assassination” and “one of the most serious recent crimes against humanitarian aid workers worldwide,” the SLMM said it is, “with the obtained findings, convinced that there cannot be any other armed groups than the Security Forces who could actually have been behind the act.”

The Sri Lankan government responded Thursday by flatly rejecting the SLMM’s findings and attacking the mission’s head.

“Maj. Gen. Henricsson’s statement is totally baseless. It is sad and we vehemently reject it,” defense ministry spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters.

“We deny it, and it’s a totally baseless statement,” Rambukwella said. “It’s pathetic and it’s biased and they have no right make such a statement because they are not professionals in autopsy or post-mortem.”

Of Maj. Gen. Henricson, Rambukwella said: “we ... condemn this unethical and unprofessional statement of the outgoing head of SLMM.”

“I am not calling him (Henricsson) a liar but I am calling it a very, very irresponsible statement,” Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera told the BBC.

But the SLMM said “highly reliable sources” had discussed the killings with chief monitor Henricsson.

“The views [of the sources] have not proved contradictory and the security forces of Sri Lanka are widely and consistently deemed to be responsible for the incident,” it said.

On Thursday the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, an umbrella group of NGOs in Sri Lanka, said it hoped the SLMM’s findings would bring increased international scrutiny, especially on the issues of “human principles and accountability”.

But in a defiant response to international reactions to the SLMM report, the Sri Lankan government has enforced new controls on foreign aid workers, AFP reported Friday, quoting aid officials.

Sri Lankan authorities had also begun harassing their staff in the aftermath of the SLMM’s findings, an official of an international charity told AFP.

“Our vehicles are not allowed to go in or come out of the (restive) east,” said the official who declined to be named.

A spokesman for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) told AFP about 500 foreign nationals working for about 90 charities had already applied for work permits but were still awaiting them.

Aid officials said the government’s measures against relief organisations did not apply to United Nations agencies or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Minister Rambukwella defended the restrictions, saying the authorities wanted to keep track of the work of relief agencies and ensure that their facilities “were not made available” to the LTTE.

“We have had some bad experiences in the past,” Rambukwella said, without elaborating. “We have a right to know who is doing what.”

Rambukwella, who is also policy planning minister, said relief agencies must hand over their assets to the military if they were quitting embattled areas and not let them to fall into LTTE hands.

His remarks came after the United Nations, reacting strongly to the SLMM’s findings, threatened to halt its aid aid operations, including refugee and tsunami relief.

“We have no independent information ourselves in the U.N., but I say we cannot continue in this area unless people will be held accountable for the execution of 17 of our colleagues,” the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, Jan Egeland, told reporters in New York.

“It was unacceptable that the government had not provided any explanation regarding the executions,” Egeland said in a statement Thursday.

“Humanitarian assistance could not continue unless the people responsible for those actions were held accountable,” he said.

Later a spokeswoman for Egeland’s office in Geneva described his statement as “a warning” and said the U.N. had no immediate plans to pull out.

“U.N. humanitarian workers continue their efforts and will continue to do their jobs, taking into account the current security conditions in Sri Lanka,” Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said.

“At the moment, there is of course no withdrawal. But if a tragedy were to occur like what happened, we would have to think things over.”

The international community has demanded an independent international inquiry into the aid workers’ massacre.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Samaraweera claimed ‘forensic investigations’ were ongoing and as such the SLMM’s findings were ‘premature’

“I will have some problems to trust a government investigation now because they are too involved in this case,” Henricsson said in an interview.

“A democratic and accountable government should support an international commission to look into this case.”

“This is not just a Sri Lankan problem. This is a worldwide problem if you can kill aid workers without any punishment.”

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