Sri Lankan aid workers found murdered

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The Independent Online

The international aid community was deep in shock yesterday as details emerged from Sri Lanka of the killings of 15 aid workers involved in tsunami relief.

The bodies of the 11 men and four women were found lying face down in their office in the town of Muttur, the centre of fighting between government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels.

For Sri Lanka, which is still struggling to recover from the 2004 tsunami, the deaths of the 15 aid workers are a reminder of how savage the civil war, which killed 64,000 people over two decades, can be.

Muttur has been reduced to a ghost town by the fighting. Many buildings are in ruins, and most of the population has fled. The 15 aid workers, all local Tamil civilians working for the French NGO Action Contre la Faim (ACF), were wearing their ACF T-shirts, which clearly indicated that they were humanitarian relief workers. All had bullet wounds.

"The humanitarian values that are defended and promoted everywhere by ACF ... have been scorned," Denis Metzger, the group's president, said in Paris. "Beyond its horror, this act undermines the status of humanitarian work."

The Tigers and the government blamed each other for the killings. Unless witnesses are found, it is impossible to say who was really behind them.

However,the thousands of homeless tsunami survivors who still depend on international aid organisations for their daily lives will now fear that the NGOs may start pulling out for their own safety. The Norwegian chief mediator in the Sri Lankan peace process, Jon Hanssen-Bauer, who is trying to persuade both sides to restore the 2002 ceasefire, left the Tiger headquarters in Kilinochchi yesterday without securing any progress.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been fighting for more than two decades for a separate homeland for Tamils. The current fighting began when government forces launched a ground attack on Tiger-held territory just over a week ago.

The government has been at pains to insist its sole objective is to reopen a vital water supply that the Tigers have blocked. But the water issue is looking increasingly like an excuse, after European ceasefire monitors confirmed the Tigers offered to restore the supply on Sunday.

The head of the European monitors, the retired Swedish major-general Ulf Henricsson, was on his way to reopen the water supply with a Tiger commander when government artillery suddenly resumed shelling. "It seems some people want war rather than water," Maj-Gen Henricsson said.

"They have the information that the LTTE has made this offer," Tommy Lekenmyr, chief of staff for the monitors, said. "It is quite obvious they are not interested in water."

While the area the government attacked is a small Tiger-held enclave away from its main territory, it is the site of a lot of the Tigers' military resources. During several days of air strikes before the ground attack, a Tiger airstrip was hit.

The government offensive came after months of attacks on its forces, including the assassination of a general, which analysts agree were attempts by the Tigers to goad the government to war. Those attacks continued yesterday with the death of the head of a police commando unit in a suspected Tiger bomb attack.

Muttur lies just across the bay from the strategic naval port of Trincomalee, the most valuable prize in the war. But it is clear the government offensive went wrong. Fighting was meant to be centred on the Tiger-held enclaves south of Muttur, but the Tigers managed to move it into the government-held town with a surprise counter-offensive.