Aid agencies stymied by war in Sri Lanka

Posted in Asia | 18-Aug-06 | Author: Shimali Senanayake and Somini | Source: International Herald Tribune

Antiwar demonstrators pushed Buddhist monks from the stage of a peace rally Thursday in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where the government and Tamil rebels are fighting. The monks are against talks with the rebels.
COLOMBO Nineteen months after the tsunami brought Sri Lanka an unprecedented rush of charity from abroad, international aid agencies find themselves hemmed in not only by surging violence in a long-running civil war but also by suspicion, hostility and, on occasion, deadly attacks.

The massacre of 17 employees of an international humanitarian agency this month in the eastern town of Muttur was the worst attack against aid workers worldwide since the bombing of the United Nations offices in Baghdad in August 2003, in which 22 people died.

The massacre sounded the alarm on the safety of aid workers in this country, amid what had been the fiercest fighting since the 2002 cease-fire. But it also was a reminder of the steady troubles they had faced in recent months.

Aid workers say they have been increasingly stymied in their ability to reach areas hardest hit by the conflict, whether in territory held by the government or by the rebels. They complain of delays in obtaining visas. For a while earlier this year, they said, vital reconstruction materials could not be transported across government-rebel lines.

This year in Ampara, an eastern district, Sri Lankan women working for foreign aid groups were singled out and warned to quit by people supposedly part of a rebel front group; some did.

In May, a driver for the Norwegian Refugee Council was found dead 150 paces from a military checkpoint in northern Vavuniya; his body was found riddled with 10 bullets. His killing remains unsolved.

A week later, grenades were lobbed at the project offices of three international aid agencies in Muttur; one employee of Nonviolent Peaceforce, a conflict- resolution group, was wounded.

This month, a Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission vehicle was pelted with stones as it tried to advance to Muttur, to look into the condition of civilians displaced by the fighting.

The murder of the 17 employees of Action Contre la Faim, or Action Against Hunger, and the Sri Lankan military's refusal to grant independent investigators immediate access to the crime scene, drew unusually pointed criticism from the head of the monitoring mission, Ulf Henricsson, a retired Swedish general.

"It's very unwise of the government to stop us from entering these areas and monitoring," Henricsson said. "To stop us is to prevent an inquiry, and why do that if you have nothing to hide?"

The government denied permission for his monitors to go there, Henricsson said, on the ground that fighting is actively under way between Sri Lankan forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE.

Eric Fort, the aid agency's head of mission for Sri Lanka, said 15 of his colleagues, all Sri Lankans, had been found shot in the head in their Muttur office.

Two others appeared to have been shot in the back; their bodies were found in the agency's compound, near a car, as if they had been trying to flee. They had lost radio contact with the group's headquarters in Colombo two days before their bodies were found.

Fort said the government turned down his repeated requests to go to Muttur to inquire after his missing colleagues, citing clashes in the area.

The government has promised an investigation into the killings, aided by forensic pathologists from Australia, but has ruled out any involvement of the United Nations or the International Committee of the Red Cross, as Action Against Hunger had requested.

"We can't have people from outside trying to do things under our laws," Mahinda Samarasinghe, the minister of disaster management and human rights, said.

The United States called Thursday for an immediate halt to the hostilities. A U.S. aide delivered this message to President Mahinda Rajapakse during a hastily scheduled meeting.

The European Union issued a statement calling for an end to the violence.

In an interview, Samarasinghe said his government welcomed international relief workers but was compelled to restrict their movement for their own safety. "We can't have any number of aid workers running around in conflict areas," he said.

Even as military clashes have displaced tens of thousands in the north and east, aid agencies cannot reach many areas where civilians are believed to be in greatest need, according to a Western diplomat in Colombo.

The threats to humanitarian workers come as Sri Lanka plunges into familiar bloodshed. This week, a roadside bomb exploded as the convoy of the Pakistani ambassador was passing through downtown Colombo; four Sri Lankan soldiers and three civilians were killed.

The 2002 cease-fire had brought a halt to decades of war between the rebels, who are ethnic Tamils, and the Sri Lankan government, dominated by ethnic Sinhalese.

The aftermath of the tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, brought hopes of reconciliation in the face of shared tragedy. But by late last year, after a deal to share tsunami aid fell apart and a new government was elected to office with the help of ethnic Sinhalese hard-liners, the cease-fire began to tatter.

A series of high-profile assassinations and tit-for-tat attacks followed, bringing the death toll to 800 in the first seven months of this year.

Late last month, what began as a fight over control of an irrigation channel in the east degenerated into what now looks like full-scale war. Some of the worst fighting raged in and around Muttur as government and Tamil Tiger troops battled for control.

Fighting spread to the north as well, as Tamil Tigers sought to reclaim the strategic and symbolically important Jaffna Peninsula. At least 50,000 Sri Lankans have been displaced in the past three weeks of fighting, according to the United Nations refugee agency, which says no reliable estimates can be made because of lack of access.

Casualty numbers are hard to establish, because each side gives wildly different estimates after each clash.

In one, the government accused the LTTE of having slain 100 Muslims who were fleeing the fighting. The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed two dead in the area Wednesday.

In another, the Sri Lankan Air Force bombed a former orphanage in rebel territory where teenage girls were undergoing first aid training this week. At least 19 girls were killed, according to truce monitors.

"It was a LTTE training camp; this was firmly established before the bombing," said Keheliya Rambukwella, the Sri Lankan military spokesman. "The question of age of the cadre really doesn't arise."

The Monitoring Mission and the United Nations children's agency said they found no evidence of rebel installations there.

In the relapse of war, Tamils who do not side with the rebels have faced singular brutality. On Aug. 8, an anti-rebel Tamil politician, S. Sivadasan, was targeted by a roadside bomb that killed two civilians and a security officer.

And last Saturday, the deputy chief of the government peace secretariat, Ketheshwaran Loganathan, was slain near his home in a suburb of Colombo. His killing came a year after the slaying of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Those two men were among the most prominent Tamils in the Sri Lankan government.

Tsunami reconstruction in the north and east has long since stopped. Now, aid groups cannot reach families displaced by the latest fighting. "This is the biggest threat in aid operations since the cease-fire," Henricsson said.

Hostility toward foreign aid groups began within a few months after the tsunami. From the government itself came strong criticism against some relief agencies, which it accused of not fulfilling promises. Aid workers, for their part, privately complained about government bureaucracy.

Entrenched ethnic tensions made matters complicated for aid workers, with Sinhalese blaming some agencies for preferring to work in Tamil areas. Nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, say they find it increasingly difficult to gain entry into areas of greatest need.

"There's a distinct difference in the last six months," said one aid worker. "We are seeing a conscious and concentrated effort to make sure there are no international NGOs operating in any areas where there are military operations.

"There are two explanations. The benevolent one is that the government doesn't want NGO workers in the line of fire. The malevolent one would be they don't want eyes and ears."

Somini Sengupta reported from New Delhi.