Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Tamil Tiger rebels threaten to pull out of Sri Lanka peace talks as 10 aid workers go missing by Shimali Senanayake

Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels on Tuesday threatened to pull out of next months peace talks over the abduction of 10 Tamil aid workers in the island's volatile east, officials said.

"It will damage the atmosphere of negotiations and make it difficult to resume talks," said Daya Master, spokesman for the Tigers from the rebel-held capital of Kilinochchi. "They should be released immediately," Master said, blaming the abductions on para-militaries supported by the Sri Lankan army. The military denies any involvement.

The Tigers' threat comes barely a week after Norway's top peace envoy Erik Solheim broke an almost three year deadlock to resume stalled peace talks between the government and the guerrillas amid fears that the island was on the brink of war.

The Tamil Rehabilitation Organization or TRO, a registered charity in Sri Lanka with alleged strong links to the Tigers said five among 15 of its members had been abducted by "unidentified gunmen," in the island's restive eastern Batticaloa, about 150 kilo meters from the capital Colombo, on Monday.

Less than a day later, the TRO reported that another group _ including three pre-school volunteer teachers _ affiliated to their organization had gone missing without a trace in the same area. "Under the circumstances, we fear that the same fate has befallen these humanitarian workers," said Arjunan Ethirveerasungham, the TRO's project development manager. "There seems to be a campaign of terror unleashed on TRO personnel in the northeast." He appealed to the Sri Lankan government and the international community to speedily investigate the abductions.

Earlier Tuesday, the United States embassy in Colombo, also urged authorities to "rapidly investigate," the allegations, while appealing to "all parties to exercise restraint and calm."

The kidnappings have been brought to the notice of President Mahinda Rajapakse and there was concern if the incidents will jeopardize the much-awaited negotiations to strengthen a fragile cease-fire.

European truce monitors said they had visited the scene but will return again Wednesday to probe the incidents further. "The LTTE has complained about these abductions and says this may jeopardize the whole Geneva conference," said Hagrup Haukland, chief of the 57-member mission. "We are very concerned as there are elements trying to disrupt the peace process."

The Tigers have been fighting for a separate state since 1983 for the island's ethnic Tamil minority, claiming discrimination by the Sinhalese majority. Nearly 65,000 people were killed before Norway brokered a truce in February 2002. Subsequent peace talks broke down a year later amid rebel demands for wide autonomy in the Tamil-majority north and east.

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