Continued unrest hampers aid effort in Sri Lanka

International agencies call for more protection as the government talks of renewed peace talks with Tamil rebels.

Despite government promises, aid workers in Sri Lanka are still not safe from the continued fighting between government forces and Tamil separatists. The recent abduction and killing of two local Red Cross volunteers in Colombo, the nation's capital, has renewed aid workers' concerns and caused the government to reaffirm its commitment to protecting volunteers.

Following a two-day tsunami relief workshop, Sinnarasa Shanmugalingam and Karthekesu Chandramohan were returning home Friday with four of their colleagues when a group of men in civilian clothing purporting to be police officers approached them. The supposed police officers separated Mr. Shanmugalingam and Mr. Chandramohan for questioning, loaded them in a van, and drove off. Their bodies were discovered Sunday in gem-mining district of Ratnapura. The victims were Tamil, an ethnic minority in Sri Lanka, reports Agence France-Presse.

Reuters reports that police have launched a major investigation into the slayings.

Police denied any involvement in the incident, which came a day after President Mahinda Rajapaksa said most complaints about abductions were false. ...

Acting police spokesman N.K. Illangakoon denied the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of the police had been involved or arrested the volunteers.

"The CID did not take them into custody," he said. "So far we have no clue about the people who kidnapped them."

The Sri Lankan government has also condemned the killings. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe came down strongly against the murders and other actions that serve to discredit governmental agencies.

"The government strongly condemns this crime which appears to have been carried out to discredit the government. This type of abductions and killings are totally against the government policy. We are determined to get to the bottom of this story," Minister Samarasinghe said.

The deaths underscore the danger for aid workers in Sri Lanka, which has been mired in a bloody civil war with the Tamil Tigers separatist group since 1972. In August 2006, militants killed 17 aid workers from the French aid organization Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger). Scandinavian monitors alleged that government forces were behind the mass aid worker killing. The government has staunchly denied the allegation.

The killing of the Tamil Red Cross volunteers came during a government "crackdown against minority Tamilsin Colombo after two bomb attacks blamed on Tamil Tiger rebels killed nine and wounded 44," reports theTimes of India.

In a joint statement by the Red Cross and Islamic Red Crescent, the groups called for better protection of aid workers and an end to any violence that expressly targets those working to help the people of Sri Lanka.

The Movement reminds the parties to the conflict that murder is prohibited under international humanitarian law, and that they must respect the work of humanitarian agencies and refrain from any acts that might jeopardize humanitarian staff or activities. It also urges them to take all necessary measures to ensure that aid workers assisting the civilian population and persons not or no longer taking part in the hostilities are spared from attack and can move freely and safely.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement will carry on with its conflict-related and post-tsunami work in Sri Lanka.

For aid workers willing to overlook ethnic tensions and supply locals with assistance wherever it is needed, Sri Lanka becomes an even more hazardous place. Working without regard to ethnic rivalries can often raise eyebrows among conflicting factions and trigger accusations that aid workers have taken sides and therefore support certain militant groups.

AFP reports that the Red Cross murders came after the government guaranteed safety to aid workers in Sri Lanka.

Key aid donors Tuesday announced the government had offered them security guarantees for their workers who have been accused by the state media and ministers of supporting Tamil Tiger rebels.

Following the guarantees, the aid groups from the US, UN and European Union among others agreed to return to work in north and eastern areas of the country, the scene of almost daily fighting.

The aid workers help refugees from the war and work on reconstruction projects to help those displaced by the December 2004 tsunami as well as fighting between troops and Tamil rebels.

Despite the continued violence, Reuters reports the Colombo government announced Sunday that even though the 2002 ceasefire agreement broke down last year, it will not table the agreement. Further the government said that it is ready to engage the Tigers in peace talks.

"I categorically state that there is no decision taken to abrogate the CFA (ceasefire agreement). It is not necessary to consider that," Rohitha Bogollagama, the foreign affairs minister, told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of an Asian security conference in Singapore.

"We have always been encouraging them (the Tamil Tigers) to come for talks, and (the) likelihood is that talks will emerge soon," he said.

"We are ready for talks even today. If they can come for talks as early as this month, we will be happy, but we leave it for the [Tamil Tigers] to respond."

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