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S Lanka monitors say not peacekeepers, still useful

Written by: Staff

COLOMBO, July 8 (Reuters) Sri Lanka's unarmed ceasefire monitors are no peacekeeping force, their head said today, but they are helping reduce violence in the island nation and an attempt by Tamil rebels to cut them back could be harmful.

After the European Union banned the Tamil Tiger rebels as terrorists in May, they demanded that staff from EU states Denmark, Finland and Sweden leave the Nordic Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), leaving only a handful from Norway and Iceland.

''It's not a peacekeeping mission,'' retired Swedish Major General Ulf Henricsson told Reuters in his Colombo headquarters.

''We are 60 persons driving around in Toyota pickups. You can only imagine what it would be like if we were not here. I think it would be worse.'' ''No one has terminated the agreement,'' Henricsson said. ''If you take all the incidents... then it's not very encouraging. But there's a lot of space where there's not violence.'' The Tigers want the EU monitors gone by September, saying they can no longer be impartial. That would include Henricsson, who commanded a United Nations battle group in Bosnia and was called out of retirement on his farm in Sweden to head SLMM.

The government says it wants the group to stay but has also repeatedly attacked the monitors, saying they are pro-rebel. Some diplomats trying to restore peace talks and stop a return to two decades of civil war say Henricsson has been too outspoken.

''My job is not to satisfy the LTTE, it is not to satisfy the government,'' he said. ''It is to monitor the ceasefire.'' PATROL BOATS, ARMOURED CARS? Under the ceasefire, the Tigers cannot unilaterally change the composition of SLMM without the government's agreement. The nations contributing staff were discussing what to do, he said.

''Five Nordic countries cannot amend the ceasefire on their own,'' he said. ''We can decide to go ourselves. We can be called back by our governments. But it is not so easy as for us to leave just because the LTTE wants us to.'' SLMM has plans -- currently on hold to see if the EU monitors stay -- to increase the number of monitors and import unarmed armoured vehicles and fast white-painted patrol boats. But Henricsson said there was no chance of armed peacekeepers coming.

''If you look into the past, the first trial was not that successful,'' he said, referring to a 1980s Indian mission that ended up fighting the Tigers and alienating both sides.

''I don't think the international community is prepared to send a peacekeeping force and I don't think the parties are prepared to accept it. I think it's a non question.'' But SLMM was having an impact, he said. In April and May, the government was furious after the monitors accused troops of involvement in extra-judicial killings. Henricsson said such killings seemed to have stopped, although all parties continued to be involved in violence.

''With the amount of violence we have now, we can't look at every single case but I think we have positive signs,'' he said. ''Maybe they have realised it's not a good idea. I think both parties should just stop the violence and come to talks.'' REUTERS SI PM1826

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