S Lankan convicts to feed army in rebel north

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COLOMBO, Mar 13 (Reuters) Sri Lanka plans to move dozens of convicts to an army-held enclave in the rebel-dominated north, officials said today -- not as a punishment but to grow vegetables.

Forced to fly up to 1.5 tonnes of vegetables a day into the Jaffna peninsula to feed 40,000 troops because of patchy local supplies, the army plans to send as many as 200 prisoners serving time for minor offences to work on a farm.

''We have a farm there. The farm is not maintained properly, because we don't have enough people. So we can hand it over to them as an open prison and they can work there and we can get vegetables,'' military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe said.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who are fighting for an independent Tamil homeland, have frequently imposed bans on sales of provisions to the army, cut off from the rest of the country by a landmine-strewn border with rebel territory.

But the plan could also put the prisoners on the front line if peace talks between the rebels and the government fail, and the island falls back into a two-decade civil war that killed more than 64,000 people before a 2002 truce.

Sri Lanka's prisons chief aims to have the plan operational within weeks, and wants the army to pay the prisoners around 4,000 rupees (39 dollars) each a month for their services.

The proposed site, on heavily defended army land with its gun turrets and the ruins of buildings destroyed by years of heavy shelling, is a natural open prison.

''Because they will be in Palaly, a high security zone, they have no escape whatsoever,'' said Rumy Marzook, Commissioner General of Prisons, referring to the town of Palaly where the army's northern base is located.

REUTERS PV SP1321

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