Sri Lanka Fighting Kills 17 Aid Workers
Monday, August 7, 2006; 10:55 PM
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Seventeen Tamil civilians doing post-tsunami relief work for an international aid group were found slain in northeastern Sri Lanka after fierce battles between rebels and the government over water supplies, relief agency officials said Monday.
The Tamil Tiger rebels, meanwhile, said they had repelled a government military offensive to regain control of a reservoir supply canal that has been the focus of intensified fighting. Military spokesman Maj. Upali Rajapakse denied the claim, saying the offensive was still ongoing.
The aid workers _ 13 men and four women _ were working for the Paris-based aid agency Action Against Hunger in the seaside town of Muttur, the scene of heavy battles which have plunged the country into one of its worst crises since a 2002 cease-fire.
The bodies had bullet wounds and most of them were laying face down, officials at the agency said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Denis Metzger, president of the Paris-based aid group, said the killings were clearly "deliberate" and that the group was suspending its operations in Sri Lanka.
"All the employees wore a T-shirt that clearly identified them as collaborators of Action Against Hunger," the group said in a statement. "In all likelihood, the team was executed."
There was no immediate comment from the government on the slayings.
The aid group, which has been working Sri Lanka since 1996, said it had lost contact with the Tamil employees on Friday after both rebel and government forces blocked off access to the Muttur area. Confirmation of the killings came on Saturday.
"We have managed to bring out the bodies from Muttur," said Eric Fort, a local official of Action Against Hunger.
Fort said 15 bodies were found at one place and two more in a car, apparently trying to flee the violence. Earlier, it was reported that 15 were killed.
The European Union urged authorities to investigate and in Washington, the State Department condemned the killings. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters the United States would "try to bring at least a return to an end to the violence and then, ultimately, go down the road of any negotiations that would bring a permanent end to the violence."
The latest violence started July 20 when rebels cut water from the reservoir to 60,000 people in government-held villages in the northeastern region. They said they were retaliating for the government's reneging on a deal to boost the water supply in rebel areas.
Government forces launched fresh artillery attacks at the reservoir Sunday, hours after rebels agreed to reopen the sluice gates during a meeting with Norwegian peace envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer.
In central Sri Lanka, meanwhile, a suspected rebel bomb killed Upul Seneviratne, the chief of an anti-terrorism commando unit, near the Buddhist holy city of Kandy, Inspector General of Police Chandra Fernando told The Associated Press.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have fought for more than two decades to carve out a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's 3.2 million minority Tamils in the north and east.
The 2002 cease-fire ended a civil war, but the truce has nearly collapsed in recent months, and renewed fighting has killed more than 900 people _ half of them civilians _ since December.
Associated Press Writers Krishan Francis in Sri Lanka and Nick Vinocur in Paris contributed to this report.