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Tigers build houses, wait for tsunami aid

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Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers group is using its own funds to build homes for tsunami survivors in areas under its control, raising concern aid money still isn’t reaching the parts of the island were it’s needed most.

Tamils in LTTE-held areas who were left homeless by the Dec. 26 tsunami are living in transitional shelters, built with funds from overseas Tamils and non-government groups, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization said.

The charity is building permanent houses in the north and northeast, where almost half the 30,000 Sri Lankans killed in the disaster lived.

International donors hoped a joint operation by government and Tiger forces to rebuild areas hit by the tsunami would help break a three-year deadlock in peace talks aimed at ending Sri Lanka’s civil war.

An agreement to jointly distribute $3 billion of aid was scrapped in July, adding to tensions between the two sides and threatening the February 2002 cease-fire.

“There would have been a lot more funds coming through and benefiting the whole country if there was a joint mechanism on aid,” said Julia Hume, a project development manager with the Tamil rehabilitation group.

“There are a few examples of work together, but essentially there is no such coordination.”

Aid of $2.2 billion and a debt moratorium of $300 million together with $500 million to boost foreign reserves were pledged to Sri Lanka following the disaster.

The tsunami, generated by a magnitude-9 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, left half a million homeless across Sri Lanka and destroyed two-thirds of the country’s coastline. After the disaster the government said it needed to rebuild 100,000 houses, as well as roads, hospitals and ports.

Sri Lanka’s Tamils, who say they are discriminated against by the majority Sinhalese, have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland in the island’s north and east, parts of which were among the hardest hit by the tsunami. They make up 18 percent of Sri Lanka’s 19.7 million people.

The distribution of aid has been hampered since July 15, when a court blocked an agreement between former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Tigers. That ruling followed a petition by the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which quit the ruling alliance a month earlier over the plan to jointly distribute aid. The JVP opposes autonomy for the Tamil Tigers.

“The spontaneous solidarity that united communities immediately after the tsunami rekindled hopes that the ethnic divisions that have cost the country so dearly in recent years may finally be waning,” Sri Lanka’s Institute of Policy Studies said in a report.

“However, a mutually acceptable arrangement for aid sharing to enable assistance to flow into the LTTE controlled areas has proved elusive.”

An agreement was needed because the US, UK and India have designated the Tamil Tigers a terrorist group, which stops most international aid organizations from providing aid to the group and the victims of the tsunami in areas it controls.

“There has been much less work done in Sri Lanka because of the political problem,” said Sam Worthington, executive director of Plan USA, an international relief organization. “It may be a challenge for some donor countries to accept some exceptions amid restrictions on whom to work with.”

The cease-fire in the two-decade civil war has come under further strain because of an upsurge in attacks on soldiers, Tigers and civilians. The LTTE accuses the government of carrying out a covert war, while the government blames a breakaway LTTE faction for the escalation in violence.

The government in January declined a request by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to visit LTTE-held areas devastated by the tsunami. Instead, Annan visited a mosque sheltering displaced families in the southern city of Hambantota and makeshift quarters in a school in the northeastern port city of Trincomalee.

According to the state-run Task Force for Relief and Reconstruction, $58 million of about $919 million of aid disbursed so far to Sri Lanka has reached the northern districts of Jaffna, Mullaitivu and Killinochchi, which include areas controlled by the Tigers.

Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran says progress in the peace process is the key to rebuilding.

“If there was so much opposition in southern Sri Lanka to a simple provisional arrangement, then it is a daydream to expect to secure a regional self-governing authority in the Tamil homeland by negotiating with the Sinhala political leadership,” Prabhakaran said in his annual Heroes’ Day speech on Nov. 27.

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