Wed, Aug 09, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Sri Lanka to probe mass slaying

INQUEST The government has ordered an investigation into the deaths of 17 ACF tsunami-relief workers, but some relatives of the dead believe the army is responsible

AGENCIES , NEW YORK, COLOMBO AND TRINCOMALEE, SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka ordered a probe into the killing of 17 local tsunami aid staff yesterday as some family members blamed the army, and fighting and artillery continued in the island's east for a 14th day.

Government howitzers hit Tamil Tiger positions near the northeastern port of Trincomalee, where suspected rebels shot dead an airman. Two police commandos were killed further south in Ampara district, officials said.

The army said operations were also continuing south of Trincomalee where the government is trying to regain control of rebel-held water supplies, the dispute that kick-started the first ground fighting since a 2002 ceasefire.

Outside Trincomalee hospital, wailing relatives prepared to bury the 17 dead from international aid organization Action Contre la Faim (ACF), most of them shot in the head execution-style in the battle-ravaged town of Mutur.

"We believe it was the army," said 50-year-old Richard Arulrajah, whose 24-year-old son was among those killed and wrhose body was found in the ACF compound. "On Friday he phoned and said he would be back by Saturday. After that, we heard the military personnel came and shot them."

The army accused the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, but diplomats are sceptical and the government says it will order a probe -- although details are sketchy.

"There will be a full judicial investigation," said Palitha Kohona, head of the government peace secretariat.

It was the highest toll of aid workers in a single incident since the 2003 bombing of the UN's Baghdad headquarters which killed at least 24.

"All of our initial information suggests the government was involved," one Western diplomat said. "The government's only option is to have a full independent investigation with international support."

Aid workers and diplomats say the reason for the murders was unclear, but troops had been under days of strain in heavy fighting. Hardliners have often accused aid agencies of favouring ethnic Tamils and of backing the rebels.

Action Contre La Faim said it was awaiting post-mortem results and had halted all activities in the area.

"We are deeply shocked by the spate of violent attacks on civilians and humanitarian aid personnel in Sri Lanka," European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner said in a statement, demanding an immediate investigation.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy condemned what he called "the appalling and cowardly murders."

The UN special envoy for tsunami recovery and former US president Bill Clinton said he was "shocked" on Monday over the massacre of 15 tsunami aid workers in Sri Lanka and called for an inquiry to "apprehend the perpetrators of this crime and to bring them to justice."

Witnesses in Trincomalee heard outgoing fire during the morning and early afternoon, with government artillery hitting targets south of town towards the site of the continuing battle over water supplies.

Norwegian peace envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer, who was due to meet the government yesterday, had convinced the rebels to reopen a blocked sluice gate to government areas and halt fighting only to find the army stepping up attacks.

The government says the only option is for the Tigers to leave the area. Analysts suspect President Mahinda Rajapakse is pushing ahead either as a concession to hardline Marxist and Buddhist monk political allies who hate the Tigers or as a matter of government pride.

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