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Militia Abducting Hundreds in Sri Lanka

"We don't know about his (Karuna's) whereabouts. We have been right throughout denying that we are involved with them," said national security spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella.

But Karuna fighters, mostly dressed in civilian clothing, work alongside police and army officials at roadblocks, according to a high-ranking local official and aid workers. Because of violence in the area _ unexplained killings happen nearly every day _ only a handful of people were willing to be named.

A leader of the K-faction's political wing, E. Prethip, told the AP that the group's members are "volunteers."

He blamed the Tamil Tigers for committing atrocities in Karuna's name, and said the breakaway faction was armed only in self-defense.

"They carry out ambushes, loot houses, kill civilians. They kidnap the children and they say it was done by Karuna," Prethip said in his office, where children served visitors drinks.

"Our military does not cooperate with the Sri Lankan army, but we're not enemies either," he said, sitting in front of a bookcase filled with children's books.

The disappearances have become so common that almost every family around Batticaloa has lost a son, or knows someone who has, residents said. A teacher said his 10th grade high school class had almost no boys left.

Scores of boys _ sometimes dozens at once _ have been rounded up at home, Hindu temples, schools or by the side of the road, spirited away in white vans, according to witnesses and confidential case files submitted to Sri Lankan prosecutors and the Ministry for Human Rights and obtained by the AP.

In the most recent known case, two dozen youngsters were taken from a single village Sept. 24, said a human rights activist who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her life.

In a desperate attempt to protect their children, many families have sent their sons to safe houses, a local resident said.

Some K-faction recruits receive wages, normally around $60 a month, with two-thirds generally going to the family. Relatives are sometimes allowed to visit the camps, often in exchange for not going to authorities, aid workers said.

"The communities seem to know who is taking their children and they live in fear and are in need of protection," said Marcel Smits, head of the aid group Nonviolent Peaceforce Sri Lanka.

Parents who visited the camps said their children were training to fight the Tigers, Smits said.

One couple told the AP their 16-year-old son was taken by a neighbor eight months ago and has not been seen again. The parents said they were too scared to go to the police, choosing to suffer silently while protecting the three boys they still have.

"We didn't try to go after him and don't know where he is," said the father, as his wife huddled in a corner, staring blankly into the glow of an oil lamp. "We just want to have an ordinary life."

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© 2006 The Associated Press