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Sri Lanka's war battered north fears more violence

Written by: Staff

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka, May 2 (Reuters) For residents of Sri Lanka's already war-battered north, who suffered bombing and fled their homes during two decades of war, recent violence raises fears it could all happen again.

Dominated by minority Tamils, now controlled by the almost exclusively Sinhalese army and cut off from the rest of the island by rebel territory, the northern city of Jaffna has changed hands several times and seen fierce fighting.

''In the last 20 years, my life has been filled with adventurous events and misery,'' says Tamil businessman Selvadurai Kailasavillai, 56. ''Life was in total darkness.

There was no electricity for more than 10 years. There was bombing and shelling every day. My wife still suffers from that misery.'' Since a 2002 ceasefire halted the war between Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels and the government, Jaffna and the rest of the north had begun to rebuild, clear landmines and munitions and return to normal.

But a recent string of suspected Tiger attacks on the military, ethnic riots in the island's multi-ethnic northeast and government strikes in the aftermath of a suicide attack on army headquarters have led to spiralling fears of a new war.

Arrangements for peace talks seem deadlocked on technicalities, and even if they take place many in Jaffna are cynical that the gulf between the two sides can be bridged.

Last week, as government jets and artillery pounded rebel positions near the northeastern port of Trincomalee, crossing points with rebel territory were closed. Jaffna ran short of fuel and food, reminding many of the days of war.

Businessman Kailasavillai first fled to Jaffna after anti-Tamil riots in Colombo in 1983 after one of the first Tiger attacks on the army killed hundreds. Since then, he has been displaced four times due to fighting.

REBUILDING HALTED ''Life today is one big question mark,'' he says, sitting in the prosperous hardware store he has built up during four years of peace.

''I am thinking of selling my land and going from here. You can't walk on the roads safely, you can't pass an army sentry point in case a grenade attack goes on. The army is very hard on us. You can't blame them.'' Nordic truce monitors say they are alarmed by disappearances of Tamil civilians, worried that elements in the military might be retaliating for attacks on them by killing innocent people.

Rebuilding in Jaffna has almost ceased in recent weeks as residents wait to see if violence will worsen further still. In a town seen to still be heavily infiltrated by the Tigers, few dare criticise them or blame them for attacks.

Support for the rebels, who want Jaffna as part of a Tamil homeland and whose leader Velupillai Prabhakaran hails from the town, is seen as strong. But some object to their fundraising and say the Tigers have a stranglehold over some local businesses.

''The goods are expensive in Jaffna because of LTTE taxes,'' says 60-year-old retired fisherman Joseph Jesudusan. ''They take the best seafood and take it to Colombo. I retired mainly because of them, because of their interference. I know they need money, but they have become greedy.'' Jaffna's poorest, low caste members who say they were treated badly by other Tamils even when they were all refugees together, say their only real ambition is to live peacefully.

''Life has been filled with agony, pain, frustration and sleepless nights,'' says road sweeper Kamla Shanmugam, 54, whose daughter was killed in 1986. ''The only thing I can say is that we must have peace. But I don't think it will come so easily.'' REUTERS CH KP1919

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