7 August 2006
Dear Nonviolent Peaceforce supporters,
Last Thursday we sent you an emergency appeal which asked you to write letters to the Sri Lankan President and the leadership of the LTTE. (The latter proved difficult to reach because it seems that the fax was mostly switched off.) We would like to thank those of you who responded, and at the same time give you an update on the situation. This update is an extract of a report Project Director Marcel Smits has written.
The latest military confrontation which led to the situation in Mutur began over a blockade of irrigation water by the LTTE in the Trincomalee district. First, the military bombed Tamil Tiger targets in eastern Sri Lanka, claiming they needed to clear the region before moving engineers in to repair a water tank. Then, the Sri Lankan army massed ground troops to smash the LTTE blockade that apparently cut supplies to people in government-controlled villages in the northeast. In retaliation, LTTE suicide bombers allegedly tried to sink a Sri Lankan army troop transport ship with 850 aboard at Trincomalee. Sri Lanka’s army and Tamil Tigers battled with mortars and artillery after the LTTE attacked and overran several eastern military camps which took them to the town of Mutur where fierce fighting broke out for several days at the beginning of August.
The LTTE managed to capture the town but not before artillery destroyed many of the houses of the predominately Muslim town. No civilian areas were spared. The hospital and schools where civilians had sought refuge got hit resulting in dozens of civilian deaths. The shelling and shooting between the LTTE and government continued while over 20,000 people, in a desperate attempt to escape death, fled en masse to find safety in the jungle and other towns far from the fighting. Among the exodus of people that fled the town of Mutur were four Nonviolent Peaceforce-Sri Lanka(NPSL) Sri Lankan staff members and their families including children and infants.
NPSL continued to monitor the situation and prepared itself in case a ceasefire would allow it to help the NPSL families. Over the weekend, a short ceasefire ensured that several NPSL trucks could conduct a search and rescue operation. In convoy with other INGOs and the International Committee of the Red Cross, one NPSL team brought one of the families to safety, escaping an angry Sinhalese crowd. The family had suffered immensely while two of its children had gotten lost in the chaos. The second NPSL truck a day later was less lucky and got stuck in a crowd throwing stones at the truck which smashed the window and injured the hand of one of the Field Team members. Nevertheless, on Sunday August 6th, all NPSL staff and their families were brought to safety and received medical attention and assistance.
Although there are no official numbers yet, early reports indicate that over one hundred people have been killed during the siege and subsequent exodus out of Mutur. At the moment, many humanitarian agencies are trying to help the tens of thousands of people that are displaced in the town of Kantale. In the mean time, the LTTE has left Mutur town and returned to the positions it held at the time of the 2002 ceasefire. Approximately six thousand people remain in Mutur. Among those found dead are 14 staff persons from the international non-profit organisation Action against Hunger (ACF) who also had (Sri Lankan) staff in the town. So far it is not known if the allegation spread by CNN on Sunday that they were deliberately killed is true.
The cease-fire agreement still stands according to both parties but it is clear that Sri Lanka has entered a new and deeper phase of the conflict. It is in this context that the LTTE’s regional political head declared earlier that, "the ceasefire agreement has become null and void" and that "it is the government that has started the war". This statement followed the account by the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) head to a Reuters interview, "In reality they more or less have terminated the ceasefire agreement in their actions", in reference to the unwillingness of both the government and the LTTE to compromise in halting violence.
The declaration and observations on the further breakdown of the ceasefire agreement was preceded by the announcement by Finland, Sweden and Denmark that they would no longer be part of the SLMM from September.
Meanwhile, the Karuna Group (a split-away faction from LTTE in the east of the country) carried out its first suicide attack on the LTTE and took advantage of the fighting in Mutur between the LTTE and the military by attacking the LTTE in Batticaloa district. According to some early reports, it seems that the Karuna group used recently abducted children to carry out these attacks.
NPSL is assisting several of the families of these children in their struggle to hold the Sri Lankan government accountable for their fate. In fact, NPSL is supporting an extraordinary initiative by 55 families in Batticaloa whose children have been abducted. They signed and sent a petition to the highest authorities in Sri Lanka and internationally raising attention to their plight.
Sri Lanka’s four-year-old ceasefire is in critical condition, and with the resumption of full-scale hostilities, all that separates it from death is an official declaration by one or the other side, with the required two-week notice, of withdrawal from the February 2002 pact.
Once again, thanks to those of you who sent messages to the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. We continue to appreciate all your support!
Mel Duncan, Executive Director