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Tamil Journalist Found Dead After Abduction in Colombo

Slaying in Sri Lanka Part of Surge in Violence Imperiling Truce Between Rebels and Government

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 30, 2005; Page A12

ARUGAM BAY, Sri Lanka, April 29 -- A prominent journalist who was closely identified with Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels was found dead of gunshot wounds near the capital, Colombo, early Friday. His killing was the latest in a series of violent incidents that are threatening a three-year-old cease-fire between the rebels and the government.

Dharmaretnam Sivaram, 46, was killed after he was abducted at a restaurant in Colombo and taken away in a four-wheel-drive vehicle by four armed men, according to news reports. His body was found hours later in a suburb about six miles from the capital, a spent cartridge from a 9mm pistol lying nearby. He had been gagged with a napkin.

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Sivaram, who had a wife and three children, was a leading voice of Sri Lanka's Tamil ethnic minority. He was a columnist for the Daily Mirror, an English-language newspaper, and a senior editor of TamilNet, an English-language Web site with a large audience among Tamils living abroad.

Sivaram's writings were often sympathetic to Sri Lanka's main Tamil rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, popularly known as the Tamil Tigers. In 1983, the rebels launched an insurgency against the Sri Lankan government -- which is dominated by the country's Sinhala ethnic majority -- aimed at securing an independent homeland. The conflict in this lush island nation off the tip of southern India claimed more than 60,000 lives before the two sides agreed to a cease-fire in February 2002.

Peace talks subsequently broke down, and a surge in political violence in the last year had raised fears about the future. Since the Asian tsunami of Dec. 26, some analysts have warned that the recovery effort, rather than uniting the country as many Sri Lankans had hoped, could exacerbate tensions, particularly if the government and the rebels cannot agree on setting up what is known here as a joint mechanism for sharing international aid.

"Direct negotiations have been stalled for two years, and in that period there have been a lot of killings," Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives, said in a telephone interview from the capital Friday. "I don't think these assassinations will have a direct bearing on whether the two sides form the joint mechanism, but it will focus attention on the deficiencies in the cease-fire regime."

The latest killing is unusual both because of the prominence of the victim and because it occurred in the Colombo area. Though the capital has experienced significant bloodshed, most of the recent violence in Sri Lanka has occurred in the east, in areas nominally under government control but where the rebels maintain a strong presence. Much of it has been linked to a split between the main rebel group and a breakaway faction led by Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, also known as Col. Karuna, with whom Sivaram was said to have been close. But Sivaram's writings generally favored the main rebel group.

In 2001, according to news accounts, Sivaram was stabbed and beaten in his office in the eastern city of Batticaloa. Last year, after a state-run newspaper accused him of being a spy for the Tigers, he told the BBC he thought his life was in danger.

His wife, Bavani, told the Associated Press her husband had been "under threat from various quarters."

The chief editor of the Daily Mirror, Lalith Alahakoon, described Sivaram as "a very outspoken person" and a "good political analyst" with a "huge audience."

The government condemned the killing, calling it "the latest in a series of violent acts and political killings since the cease-fire," and vowed to arrest those responsible.

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