August 31, 2006

U.N. warns may halt Sri Lanka work after aid killings

By Simon Gardner

COLOMBO (Reuters) - The United Nations threatened overnight
to suspend aid operations in Sri Lanka after international
truce monitors accused government troops of executing aid

Nordic truce monitors on Wednesday formally accused Sri
Lankan soldiers of being behind the execution-style murders of
17 local staff members of the Action Contre La Faim aid agency
earlier this month during a battle with Tamil Tiger rebels in
the northeast.

The government denies it, and angry officials accused the
monitors of being biased toward the rebels in their ruling.

"We have no independent information ourselves in the U.N.,
but I say we cannot continue in this area unless people will be
held accountable for the execution of 17 of our colleagues,"
the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, Jan Egeland, told
reporters in New York.

The victims, mostly Tamils, were found shot dead in their
office compound in the northeastern town of Mutur, around 135
miles northeast of the capital Colombo. It was the worst mass
murder of aid staff since a 2003 bomb attack on the United
Nations compound in Baghdad.

The Nordic Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), which
oversees a 2002 truce that now only holds on paper, says Sri
Lankan authorities have obstructed their efforts to
investigate, and says it is convinced no armed groups other
than the security services could have been responsible.

"I will have some problems to trust a government
investigation now because they are too involved in this case,"
outgoing chief monitor Maj. Gen. Ulf Henricsson said in an

"A democratic and accountable government should support an
international commission to look into this case.

"This is not just a Sri Lankan problem. This is a worldwide
problem if you can kill aid workers without any punishment."

The government took umbrage at the comments.

"Maj. Gen. Henricsson's statement is totally baseless. It
is sad and we vehemently reject it," defense ministry spokesman
Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters. "We ... condemn this
unethical and unprofessional statement of the outgoing head of


The last of the SLMM's European Union members are due to
cease work on Thursday, the deadline of a rebel ultimatum for
them to leave the island after the 25-nation bloc banned them
as a terrorist organization. Many have already left, sharply
reducing the mission by two-thirds to around 20 staff.


Fierce fighting continued in the rebel-besieged far north.

Residents in the army-held Jaffna peninsula said rebel
artillery shells were falling near residential areas in the
local municipality and fear the Tigers are planning an advance.

"Shells fell close to my house last night," said Jaffna
library assistant Kumaravel, giving only one name. "I am
thinking of moving if it continues tonight."

The government is insisting that the Tigers must relinquish
a town near the mouth of the strategic northeastern harbor of
Trincomalee, which is on a key supply route to the besieged
Jaffna peninsula at the island's far north.

The Tigers, who are fighting for a separate homeland for
ethnic Tamils in the north and east, refuse and vow to
retaliate with all their might, and analysts expect renewed war
to rumble on as long as each side believes it has the upper

President Mahinda Rajapakse, meanwhile, prepared to meet
Britain's British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London and
diplomats said they would discuss what lessons Sri Lanka can
learn from Northern Ireland's peace process.

Britain has previously called on Sri Lanka's government to
ensure it upholds human rights, but it was not clear whether
Blair would address the issue of the slain aid workers.

"It's certainly a good thing the president wants to discuss
Northern Ireland," said a Western diplomat. "But I wouldn't
describe it as anything close to a breakthrough."

(With reporting by Matthew Verrinder at the UNITED NATIONS
and Peter Apps in COLOMBO)