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Crime soars in Sri Lanka's north as violence rises

Written by: Staff

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka, July 4 (Reuters) With a ceasefire in tatters and frequent clashes between soldiers and suspected Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka's north, residents say law and order is breaking down as criminals take advantage of the chaos.

Both sides deny it, but human rights observers say the military and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) appear to be carrying out abductions and killings. On the streets of the town of Jaffna, residents have much to fear.

''I am really scared to travel anywhere,'' said 48-year-old teacher Saroja Shanugananga. ''I can get caught in a grenade, a bomb attack or firing. Everyday there is an incident. The crime rate is higher than ever before.'' The military say they know crime is rising and that they are holding meetings with the police and local community. But they are already overstretched trying to track down rebels.

''Civilian support is required,'' said army spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe. ''That is why we have formed these committees. We are getting some information from the civilians.'' One soldier was killed in a fragmentation mine attack in Jaffna on Monday, while grenade attacks and night-time firefights have become routine in a city that has changed hands several times and bore the brunt of two decades of civil war.

Currently army-held, the Tigers seem to want the ethnic Tamil town back.

Today morning, a member of an anti-Tiger political group was found dead in a Jaffna well, the latest of more than 700 people killed so far this year across the island.

Sri Lanka's Human Rights Commission office says 220 people have disappeared in Jaffna since December. The army can be blamed in 70-80 cases, they said, but the rest are more difficult to prove. Local residents say they fear practically everyone.

KILLING FOR MONEY ''I was kidnapped twice in the 1980s and kept for two days by the LTTE,'' said one local businessman. ''I paid to be released. Even today I am scared of being kidnapped or my shops being robbed. There are people who kill for money in Jaffna today.'' A 2002 ceasefire continues to hold along most of the front-line, but Jaffna residents say the violence in government areas holds hazards that they avoided during the war, in which the Tigers openly fought the government to win a Tamil homeland.

''Every day there is robbery and killing in our area,'' said 52-year-old Vimalan Pathmaligam, waiting at a Jaffna bus-stand.

''Wartime was different. We were all together.'' He says he has pawned what jewellery the family have and put the money in the bank. That makes it harder to steal -- but he will have less to barter if the banks shut and he has to again flee fighting on the Jaffna peninsula as he did in 2000.

Streets are deserted well before dusk. The army repeatedly search houses. Some civilians say they are heavy-handed, others that they behave decently -- and better than during the war.

''It's not that I'm scared of the army but I have a tensed-up feeling every time I see them,'' said 27-year-old Mary Matilda Paul, who lost a brother and two cousins in the war.

''We don't go out after 6 o'clock. I'm scared of everything.'' REUTERS CH HT1405

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