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Tamils condemn ban on Annan visit to rebel areas

Hopes that the devastation wrought by the Boxing Day tsunami would see Sri Lanka's rival ethnic and political groups set aside their differences and rebuild shattered communities appear to have been dashed.

Tamils in the devastated north and east of the country reacted with fury yesterday after it emerged that the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, would not be visiting the battle-scarred regions of the island.

And within the Tamil community there was bloodshed. A grenade attack in the town of Valaichchenai killed three people and injured 37 in a part of eastern Sri Lanka where international aid workers are helping tsunami victims, police said. It was thought to have been sparked by a row between Hindus and Christians.

But Tamils were united in their condemnation of the ban on the secretary general's planned tour of rebel-held, tsunami-hit areas.

The Tamil Tigers (LTTE) fought a 20-year war for independence from the Sinhalese-dominated south that claimed more than 60,000 lives. Relations remain tense despite a ceasefire three years ago. The Tigers had invited Mr Annan to tour their northern province but the government said that it could not guarantee his safety.

Yesterday, 400 people protested outside the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' office in Colombo, demanding a visit be made to the north to inspect tsunami damage. At least 30,000 people have been killed on the island and more than 100,000 are homeless.

The leader of the Tigers' political wing, S P Thamilselvan, said the move could have negative consequences for peace on the island and said that Mr Annan had agreed to visit rebel areas. Mr Annan told a press conference: "I'm hoping to come back and be able to visit all areas of the country, not only those repaired, but also to celebrate peace. The UN is not here to take sides. We are here to help all people in the country. This is a tragedy that has affected all people, that has transcended divisions that wrack your country."

The Sri Lankan government said Mr Annan's schedule had been planned in consultation with UN agencies in Colombo, "taking into account the security, programming and time consideration involved".

The dispute began after relations between the two sides deteriorated in recent days. The LTTE has accused the government of ignoring the plight of its people, while the government has claimed the Tamils have refused offers of help.

Last night the government was criticised by volunteers who have delivered aid to the Tamil areas. Thipa Moorthy was born in Sri Lanka but lives in London. He was moved to help the aid effort after seeing the devastation on television. He and five volunteers visited Tamil-dominated areas last week and say they encountered threatening behaviour from government forces.

"Not enough help is being given to these, the most devastated parts of the island. Most of the aid is coming from international agencies; the government is doing less than in other parts," Mr Moorthy said. "I am very annoyed that Annan is not making this trip. This is just another obstacle the government is putting in place that stops the rest of the world seeing exactly what has happened in the worst-hit parts of the country."

In an appeal delivered to Mr Annan, the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies echoed his sentiments. The group said: "It is a matter of regret that the government has denied the rare opportunity to the internally displaced people living in the north to meet you and air their grievances."

President Chandrika Bandaranaike insisted it was giving the Tamil areas even more than their share of aid. She said her government and the rebels were working well together following the tsunami and claimed the advice against Mr Annan travelling was given because they could not guarantee his safety in a specific part of the north.