The Web Sri Lanka In Focus

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Update: Fighting claims 45 rebels, 16 soldiers in Lanka

Heavy fighting in northern Sri Lanka resulted in the deaths of at least 45 Tamil rebels and 16 soldiers in the past two days, military officials said on Tuesday.

Most of the combat was reported in the north-western district of Mannar, but fighting was also reported in the Vavuniya and Welioya areas, about 300 kilometres north-east of the capital.

In a clash Monday at Andankulam in Mannar district, 10 soldiers were killed and 21 injured while 13 rebels died, the military said.

The military claimed the rebels fired a barrage of artillery into the Thaladi area of Mannar district, destroying a Catholic church and killing six soldiers who were assisting a priest to clear the premises.

The military said that three Catholic priests who met the ground commanders in the area had requested the assistance of the army to evacuate the location and the attack was carried out while the clearing was going on.

But the pro-rebel Tamilnet web site said that the army had mounted an artillery barrage simultaneously from all of its camps in Mannar and the rebels retaliated, killing six soldiers and wounding 10 others, but did not say that the incident took place near a church. There was no independent confirmation of the rebel or government claims.

The military said that a total of 45 rebels were killed in combat since Monday morning.

The government has stepped up military operations in the north after vowing to crush the rebels by the end of the year.

Guerrillas also have carried out bomb attacks on civilian targets in at least four different locations in the south as well as the north-east. They targeted three public transport buses and a railway station, killing more than 70 civilians and injuring over 150.

The government on January 16 formally withdrew from a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire with the main Tamil rebel group.


Testing times ahead of local elections in east

COLOMBO, 11 February 2008 (IRIN) - The length of time shops stay open in the evenings in Batticaloa city in eastern Sri Lanka is a key indicator of the level of tension. These days they stay open late. The climate might just be right for the 10 March local elections.

Sri Lanka's oldest election monitoring group, the People's Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), said in a report on 6 February that there was general agreement the security situation had improved.

"People felt secure enough to move about at night," the report entitled Preliminary Report on the Forthcoming Local Government Elections in Batticaloa stated.

The local elections in Batticaloa District are the first polls in 13 years and come nine months after the Sri Lankan government gained control in June 2007 of all areas formerly held by the Tamil Tigers in Batticaloa. Representatives are to be elected to six local administrative bodies, including Batticaloa Municipal Council.

PAFFREL and others have expressed fear that the polls could be marred by violence and it has called on the government to take urgent steps to prevent election-related incidents.

"It is possible that violence and election malpractices will surface as the election campaign gathers momentum," the report stated, noting that armed groups had not been disarmed. At least one election-related murder and one abduction have been reported to date.

Relief work slows

UN agencies and others working in the district have warned that the security situation remains fragile and some relief work has slowed down. "The situation remains tense with continued activities of armed groups in the district," the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) said in a situation report released on 1 February. "The looting of humanitarian assistance materials is leading to delays in programme implementation, with some agencies informing that they have suspended some work due to continued loss of material."

Fighting between government forces and the Tamil Tigers forced over 150,000 out of their homes last year and the IASC report said 26,000 were still displaced in the district.

Armed political party

The prime concern for relief agencies and groups like PAFFREL has been the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), a political party formed by former eastern military head of the Tamil Tigers Vinayagamurthi Muralitharan, alias Karuna, after he split with the Tigers' leadership in April 2004.

The TMVP has been accused by UN agencies, including the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the humanitarian community, of abductions, extortion and child recruitment. It is now led by Karuna's second in command Pilliyan, as Karuna is in London.

"The TMVP is the moving force here and there are fears that its armed cadres in public can be a fissure point for violence and election mal-practice," Manorajan Rajasingham, PAFFREL's Batticaloa District coordinator told IRIN.

Faced with growing criticism, the TMVP leadership has now ordered its armed members to remain indoors. "We have made sure that none of the armed cadres are in public," TMVP Batticaloa head Pradeep Master told IRIN.

"Coercion before nominations"

PAFFREL's Rajasingham felt that the dip in violence in Batticaloa was mainly due to the absence of rivalry among Tamil parties in the election. "There was a lot of coercion before nominations," he told IRIN. The Tamil National Alliance, the largest party representing Tamils in parliament, is boycotting the elections. "There was a lot of pressure on them from the TMVP," Rajasingham said.

Other opposition figures criticised the polls as an effort to legitimise the presence of the TMVP in the district and in the rest of the eastern province. "It is an exercise to sanction the TMVP's presence through an election," Rauf Hakeem, the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the largest opposition party contesting, told IRIN.

The TMVP acknowledges the importance of the elections for its evolution as a political force in Sri Lanka's east. "It is a vital point in our growth as a political party," Pradeep Master said.

The ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has entered into an electoral alliance with the TMVP to contest the Batticaloa Municipal Council. Senior UPFA officials say the elections allow former armed groups to enter electoral politics. "We have to keep the doors open for them," UPFA General-Secretary Susil Premajayantha said recently.

PAFFREL's Rajasingham also felt that public office could work to make the armed group more responsible. "It can work. When they become accountable to local communities as their elected officials, there is more responsibility, then."

But the results of similar exercises in the past consistently disappointed him. "What elections - local, provincial or national - have brought stability in this country?" he asked. "None, in my estimation; it will be the same after these elections."


Rebel artillery fire hits Catholic church in Sri Lanka, killing 6 soldiers, says military

Colombo (AP): Artillery fired by Tamil separatists hit a Roman Catholic church near a military base in Sri Lanka's embattled north on Tuesday, killing six soldiers who were cleaning the building, the military said.

About 15 shells hit St. Anthony's Church and the nearby area in the village of Thalladi in the Mannar district, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.

The attack came a day after escalating fighting between government forces and Tamil Tiger fighters along the front lines of the civil war killed 42 rebels and 10 soldiers, the military announced Tuesday.

Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan could not immediately be reached for comment.