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Vengeful bombardment displaces 40,000

The Sri Lanka military launched a sustained barrage against Muttur East Tuesday and Wednesday last week, killing 18 civilians, injuring over 30 and displacing tens of thousands during the two days of indiscriminate air strikes and artillery fire.



The Sri Lankan government said the bombardment, which destroyed many villages and displaced 43,000 people according to civil servants in the area, was retaliation for the attempted assassination of the Army Commander (see separate story, p5).



But the international Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) ruled that the strikes were a violation of the ceasefire, sparking an angry outburst from the government (see separate story, p2).



Kfir jets of the air force and army artillery targeted several Tamil villages in LTTE controlled parts of Muttur east. One of the bombs had fallen on ‘Vaddam’, a Muslim controlled village in the government controlled Muttur town.



At least ten Muttur east villages were targeted during the 16 hours of attacks, with a dozen aerial bombs and nearly 600 artillery shells, including those from multi-barrel launchers, falling on the villages, Mr. S. Elilan, Trincomalee district political head of the LTTE, told the press.



In addition, villages that are outside Muttur East and under the control of the LTTE including Ralkuli and Upparu, also came under naval and army mortar attack.



“All targets hit were civilian. One LTTE base was slightly damaged. However, not a single LTTE cadre was injured in the attacks,” he said.



“The situation is like a war. People are being killed by bombs and artillery fire. You can’t say there’s peace in Sri Lanka anymore,” Mr. Elilan said.



“They are firing with artillery and cannons,” head of the LTTE Peace Secreterait, Mr. S. Puleedevan said during the bombardment. “It is like a war situation in Trincomalee. If the attacks continue, the LTTE will be forced to take military defensive action.”



Reportedly acting under international pressure, the Sri Lankan government called off its bombardment on Thursday, though sporadic shelling has been reported on and off in the past few days.



Having criticised the Sri Lankan government’s bombardment, the SLMM also rejected government claims that a shell which fell in a Muslim dominated government controlled area of Mutur, killing 4 Muslim civilians and injuring 9 others, was fired by the LTTE.



“The deaths and damage were clearly caused by a misfire of the Government forces and not by LTTE firing as claimed by the Army on Wednesday,” SLMM head Ulf Henricsson who visited the Muslim village, said afterwards.



Three Muslim civilians were killed and eight others were injured Wednesday when a Sri Lanka Air Force Kfir jet bombed ‘Vaddam’ in Muttur town, south of Trincomalee.



The pre-school and the science laboratory of Chenaiyoor Central College were also damaged in the air strike and artillery shell attack, a worker of a local non-governmental organization (NGO) in the area told Tamilnet by telephone. The NGO worker was under the first floor of the college when the artillery attack took place.



He said more than sixty shells fired by the security forces exploded in several villages, including Kaddaiparichchan, Chenaiyoor, Koonitheivu, Soodaikuda, Kadatkaraichenai.



The United Nations children’s agency confirmed Sunday that four children were killed in the government air strikes, and urged the reopening of schools in the affected area. UNICEF, which sent a mission to LTTE-held areas of Trincomalee district, said two schools were damaged in the bombardment.



“Four children between the ages of two and 16 years were among the 18 people killed in the air attacks,” UNICEF senior program coordinator Yasmin Haq told AFP. “We were told that another 24 children were wounded. We are checking on those reports.”



She said UNICEF was keen for the schools to be quickly rebuilt. “Children in the area are traumatised and it is important for them to go back to school as soon as possible. That is one way in which they can overcome the trauma,” she said.



Meanwhile, during the attacks the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) had refused permission to the International Committee of Red cross (ICRC) to take three seriously wounded Tamil civilians to a hospital in the government controlled area for further treatment.



The military had reopened access routes to LTTE controlled areas but relief workers were still encountering problems getting to refugee camps. “UNHCR calls for immediate access to all affected populations as soon as possible,” the agency said.



Up to 21,000 people had fled their homes following the air strikes, the United Nations said Sunday. “Altogether there is an established recent case load of some 6,000 families or about 21,000 people,” the office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka said in a statement. “The UN agencies are starting immediate deliveries of aid to affected areas.”



But some reports said this number, lower than the 40,000 reported by the top civil servant in Muttur east, is based those displaced between the ethnic riots of April 12 and before last Tuesday’s air strikes. Families from Muttur east displaced by the aerial bombardment were not included in these figures the reports said.



Other reports put the number of displaced at 40,000, though the government claims the number is much lower, with only around 7,000 people displaced.



Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian, told TamilNet: “the figure of 43,158 persons displaced is an official figure reported by the Divisional Secretariat of Muttur and confirmed by independent NGOs including INFORM. If this figure is wrong, the Government has to blame its own institutions.”



The UNHCR also said a smaller number of refugees had also fled to neighbouring India. “As a result of the latest security incidents in Sri Lanka, 16 people have landed on the shores of southern India,” the UNHCR said.



Humanitarian agencies working in these affected areas have pointed out that many people have been displaced and are languishing in refugee camps with little care and protection. They say children are the most affected with their education coming to a halt with most schools remaining closed due to the volatile situation.



United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Thursday said that it was deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation of civilians following weeks of escalating tension and violence.



“The loss of life, the new displacement of families, the destruction to businesses and property, as well as threats to humanitarian workers, are creating a climate of fear and tension for civilians,” said United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland.



The UN agency said it expected the displaced to return to their homes as tensions subsided. However, reports of a resumption of shelling in the Vavunathivu area on Saturday had caused further panic among the refugees.



SLMM spokeswoman Ms. Olaffsdottir said the fear and uncertainty among civilians after the attacks have gradually eased in the past few days. She said displaced people in the Trincomalee district have been temporarily sheltered mainly in temples, schools and public buildings. She added that many people, living in coastal areas hadn’t still gone back to their homes.



Meanwhile some NGOs said that civilians who were caught in the shelling are not receiving even basic humanitarian assistance. They alleged that people who have sought refuge in camps in areas such as Muttur and Kinniya in the Trincomalee district hadn’t received assistance for days and that people had to depend on other villagers for assistance.



They also noted that authorities instead of arguing about the actual number of people who have been displaced as a result of the recent volatile situation should concentrate on providing humanitarian assistance to them, the Sunday Times reported.

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