Mon, Jun 25, 2007 - Page 4 News List

Sri Lanka massacre probe shows flaws

MYSTERY KILLINGS Nearly a year after 17 members of a Paris-based NGO were murdered, international observers say the investigation lacks impartiality and transparency

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MUTUR, SRI LANKA

Noilen Romila, a resident of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, holds a portrait of her sister, Sivapragasam, one of 17 aid workers massacred in Mutur last year. The massacre of the 17 was among the worst attacks aimed at aid workers in any conflict in recent years.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The victims had been ordered to lie face down, arms outstretched, all in a row in the front yard of a white bungalow. Two lay next to a parked van, interrupted perhaps in a bid to escape.

Most of the dead wore T-shirts bearing the name of the aid group that employed them: the Paris-based Action Contre La Faim, or Action Against Hunger.

The bungalow was their local office, where they had huddled for at least three days last August, waiting to be rescued as soldiers and rebels battled for control of this town.

By the time help arrived, their bodies were decomposing. Photographs show crows standing witness on a plastic patio chair.

The massacre of the 17 was among the worst attacks aimed at aid workers in any conflict anywhere in recent years, approaching the toll in the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, in August 2003.

But nearly a year after the massacre, the most basic questions about the killings remain unresolved.

Sri Lanka's government, enmeshed again in a bitter civil war and anxious to keep international human-rights monitors out of the country, is facing rising condemnation from groups here and abroad who say the investigation has been wanting because of the possibility that its security forces were involved.

They point to serious gaps, including inconsistencies in ballistics evidence that could implicate Sri Lankan soldiers.

The International Commission of Jurists, a Geneva-based human-rights group composed of lawyers, released a report in April identifying "a disturbing lack of impartiality, transparency and effectiveness of the investigation."

Predictably, the combatants, the Sinhalese-dominated state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have blamed each other for the massacre, one in a pattern of extrajudicial killings that have become a regular feature of the war. Each side says the aid workers were killed when the other party held Mutur. Exactly when they were killed and who was in charge is the major mystery.

In the latest assault on aid workers, the bodies of two Sri Lankan Red Cross Society staff members were found early this month in a suburb of Colombo. They were picked up for questioning the day before by men who identified themselves as police officers.

The massacre here occurred at a turning point in the war, as government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels clashed for control of the east. By Aug. 1, the battle had reached Mutur, a small town that was a tricky place.

Located across the bay from Trincomalee, it had long been under government control, but was encircled by rebel-held villages.

Its population was mixed, with Tamils and Muslims living with each other alongside hundreds of largely Sinhalese soldiers.

Trickier still for the aid group was the fact that all its workers were Sri Lankan nationals from Trincomalee, an hour away by ferry, and strangers to the town. All were Tamil, except one man, a Muslim.

Foreigners can often shield national staff from harassment and suspicion from the warring parties. But that week, with Mutur already girding for trouble, local staff members were sent out alone.

As the Sinhalese military fought to flush out rebel bases nearby, the Tamil Tigers stormed the town, by their account, around 12:30pm on Tuesday.

That evening, from besieged Mutur, one of the aid workers, Sivapragasam Romila, 25, called a neighbor in Trincomalee; her own family did not have a phone. Her 18-year-old sister, Noilen, ran next door to answer the call. It was only then that she learned that her sister was even in Mutur.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top