Sun, Aug 20, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Jaffna relatively calm despite fighting

UNDER SIEGE In spite of spiraling prices and a cash shortage, witnesses described the Sri Lankan city as relatively quiet, with authorities even easing curfew restrictions

AGENCIES , COLOMBO

The government-held city of Jaffna, cut off by fighting between Sri Lankan forces and Tamil Tiger rebels, faced dwindling food supplies and soaring prices yesterday but no real panic, aid workers and wit-nesses from the beleaguered town say.

One city resident said by telephone that prices for staples were up more than three-fold, with gasoline selling for more than four times the going price before the latest fighting began three weeks ago.

A cash shortage also hit the remote northern city, with people rushing to withdraw money from local banks in anticipation of a possible evacuation, he said.

Witnesses and aid workers said gunfire and artillery shelling could be heard throughout the night and into the morning, but authorities eased recent curfew restrictions somewhat.

"If this continues for another week, there won't be any more food," said Dilan, a pharmaceutical salesman who did not want to give his surname.

"People are withdrawing money from the banks, so there is no money to be had," he said by telephone. Communications with the region have been sporadic at best over the last week.

Police in Colombo, meanwhile, set up checkpoints at all roads leading into the city as part of security for the South Asia Games (SAG), being held in the capital, a government spokesman said.

"They have covered all entry points to the city. This is to ensure security during the the SAG," he said.

Across the island, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says more than 160,000 people have fled their homes -- 41,000 of them in Jaffna.

The city has long been a key rebel objective for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who are fighting the Sinhalese-majority state for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils.

Initial reports said things were relatively quiet yesterday around the eastern port of Trincomalee, just north of where the latest fighting began around a rebel-held water supply.

In what could be a sign of growing self-confidence, government authorities relaxed the curfew in Jaffna, allowing residents to leave their homes between noon and 5pm, witnesses said.

Still, no fixed-wing aircraft were flying out of the enclave and sea movement seems to have been curtailed, in large part for fear of the rebels' deadly Black Sea Tiger suicide units.

Aid workers said no deal had been reached with the two sides to allow a relief ship carrying food, medicine and other supplies to reach the city, home to an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people.

A decision on a relief ship was expected early next week.

International truce monitors say more than 800 had died this year even before the ground war began. Diplomats estimate that a similar number may have been killed in the last three weeks alone.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan air force planes destroyed a strategic Tamil Tiger sea base in the north in overnight strikes, killing a number of insurgents, the military said yesterday.

Military spokesman Major Upali Rajapakse said the Tamil Tigers have been using the base to launch attacks on government positions in Jaffna Peninsula.

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