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Thousands flee homes after Sri Lanka unrest

Written by: Staff

Colombo, Apr 19: Thousands have fled their homes in Sri Lanka's northeast after rioting last week which a pro-rebel newspaper said was reminiscent of ethnic violence that launched the island into civil war more than 20 years ago.

Some 3,000 are living in camps near the port city of Trincomalee, home to a mix of majority Sinhalese, ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims, after the town erupted into bloody riots that followed a suspected Tamil Tiger bomb last week.

''In the last two or three days NGOs have begun providing food for them,'' Trincomalee Government Agent K. G. Leelananda told Reuters.

The riots were part of a wave of escalating violence that has pushed a 2002 truce between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels, fighting for a separate Tamil homeland in the north and east, to the breaking point.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have also said they would not attend a round of talks in Geneva planned for next week, putting the peace process further in question.

The Lodon-based Tamil Guardian, seen as close to the rebels, said Sinhalese targeted Tamils in the riots while the government stood by, adding there could be no progress on peace because of what it called ''enduring racism''.

''Last week's violence in Trincomalee was almost a carbon copy of the dynamics of 'Black July', bitter memories of which were instantly revived amongst Tamils,'' the newspaper, which publishes weekly, said in an editorial today.

Black July refers to July 1983, when the capital Colombo was torn apart by race riots seen as starting the full-scale civil war that has killed more than 64,000. Those riots followed a Tiger ambush on soldiers in the north.

The violence in Trincomalee was ''systemic and organised'', the newspaper charged, criticising President Mahinda Rajapakse for not offering an apology or assurances of protection.

The area has been under intermittent curfew since the riots.

Local police were encouraging those who fled Trincomalee to return home and residents had pledged to do so within the next few days, government agent Leelananda said.

But the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation, seen as the aid arm of the Tigers, said the climate of fear in the east -- traditionally a flashpoint because of its ethnic mix -- made it unlikely they would move home soon.

''Until people feel safe they won't go back,'' said spokesman Arjunan Ethirveerasingam.

He said the organisation estimated it had helped 800 families, or about 4,000 people, who fled both into government-controlled and rebel-held areas.


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