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Sri Lanka recruits Muslims to protect east from rebels

Written by: Staff

COLOMBO, Mar 28 (Reuters) Sri Lanka's army, striving to tame a high desertion rate, has started recruiting Muslims in the island's east today to boost troop numbers and help protect the area from Tamil Tiger rebels, military officials said.

The army aims to recruit 500 to 600 Muslim men into a new infantry battalion be deployed in the tsunami-battered district of Ampara, which has the largest concentration of Muslims in Sri Lanka and whose residents have faced past attacks by rebels.

''We are recruiting some Muslims for a new regiment,'' said military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe, adding that a name for the new unit had not yet been chosen.

''This recruitment is also to give Muslims a chance in the army and at the same time to safeguard the Muslim community and Muslim villages in the east,'' he added.

Muslims are Sri Lanka's third largest community behind majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils, and most Muslims speak the Tamil language. Currently, the 100,000-strong military is almost exclusively Sinhalese.

Next month the government will offer to drop court martial proceedings against about 50,000 deserters in the hope of reintegrating the former soldiers -- many of whom are said to have taken to crime -- back into society or even into the army.

Thousands of Muslims were forced out of the northern town of Jaffna in the 1990s after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ordered them to flee. Relations between the two communities have since been tense.

The Tigers, whose two-decade armed struggle to carve out a separate homeland for Tamils in Sri Lanka's north and east thanks to a 2002 truce, now accuse the army of backing a Muslim paramilitary group known as ''Jihad'', but no-one else has yet found any evidence.


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