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TRO abductions threaten Geneva talks

The abductions of ten aid workers of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) by suspected Army-backed paramilitaries have raised doubts as to whether talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers agreed to international applause last week would go ahead.

“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 after ten members were abducted in two separate incidents in Sri Lanka’s restive east - one group from their vehicle within 100 yards of an Army checkpoint.

The TRO appealed to the government of Sri Lanka, international ceasefire monitors, the International Red Cross, Colombo-based embassies and civil society to “urgently investigate these missing humanitarian workers.”

Last Wednesday the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government accepted a Norwegian proposal to hold urgent talks in February in Switzerland on the ceasefire agreement which has been badly frayed by a simmering shadow war between Army-backed paramilitaries and the Tigers.

But no date for the talks has been set and the LTTE has already said that its participation in the negotiations – the first talks since early 2003 are conditional on improvements in the security situation faced by Tamils in Army-occupied parts of the Northeast.

“This is a very serious incident and it will be very difficult to convince Tamil people to go for talks when the harassment is going on,” Seevaratnam Puleedevan, head of the LTTE Peace Secretariat told The Associated Press, after the abductions of the first five TRO staffers.

The United States responded quickly Tuesday after the first incident, calling for calm and an investigation. A US Embassy statement called “on all parties to exercise restraint and calm, especially in the run-up to the cease-fire talks in Geneva.”

The US said it was “concerned about the reported kidnapping of the TRO members” and urged “the relevant authorities to rapidly investigate these allegations.”

The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) tasked with overseeing the truce has received the complaints.

The LTTE has reacted angrily to the abductions – sentiments not improved by the Sri Lankan government’s flat denial of the checkpoint incident having taken place at all (Colombo has not commented on the second incident).

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

“Such abduction could not happen in close vicinity to the check point,” he told the BBC Sinhala service.

However, despite repeated protests by the LTTE, Tamil civil groups and the international community, Sri Lanka has refused to disarm Army-backed Tamil paramilitary groups waging a shadow war against the Tigers, claiming instead the violence is 'internal feuding' within the LTTE.

Hundreds of LTTE members and supporters, civilians and Sri Lankan miltiary personnel have been killed in the past two years with violence peaking in the past two months – easing, however, after intense Norwegian shuttle diplomacy secured an agreement by both protagonists to negotiate the implementation of the February 2002 ceasefire agreement.

Violence had been declining in the past week after the government and the LTTE agreed to resume talks on the ceasefire - even though the day after the Norwegian announcement, Army backed paramilitaries attacked an LTTE vehicle and killed a senior cadre and iIn a sharp escalation, Sri Lanka Army fired heavy weapons to cover the ambush team’s retreat into government-controlled territory.

Then this Tuesday (Jan 31), suspected Army-backed paramilitaries abducted two separate groups of aid workers from the TRO.

Five people - four personnel from the TRO’s Pre School Education Development Center (PSEDC) personnel and their driver - have been reported missing in the East, the charity said.

The team, which was expected to have returned to the Kilinochchi FORUT office Tuesday, had left Valaichchenai, Batticaloa District, Sunday around 7:00 p.m, but had failed to arrive, a statement said. Amongst the missing is Mr. Kasinathar Ganeshalingam, PSEDC North-East Province Secretary.

Earlier, another five TRO staff emembers travelling from their Batticaloa office to Vavuniya for training were stopped by paramilitary personnel immediately after the Welikanda, (Polunnaruwa District) Sri Lankan Army (SLA) checkpoint at 2 pm.

Fifteen TRO Batticaloa staff members were travelling to Vavuniya. The TRO vehicle had registered at the Welikanda checkpoint and was continuing its journey when an unmarked white van that had been following obstructed their vehicle and forced it to stop about 100 yards from the checkpoint.

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.

“It will affect the atmosphere of the peace process,” LTTE media co-ordinator Daya Master told Reuters from Kilinochchi.

“This will create panic in the people again. These are innocent civilians. It may be the Sri Lankan forces or it may be the Karuna group,” he said.

The Karuna Group is 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 violence that has come to be characterized as a ‘shadow war.’

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