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UN warns may halt Sri Lanka work after aid killings

Written by: Staff

COLOMBO, Aug 31 (Reuters) The United Nations threatened overnight to suspend aid operations in Sri Lanka after truce monitors accused the security forces of executing aid workers.

Nordic truce monitors yesterday formally accused the security forces of being behind the execution-style murders of 17 local staff of aid agency Action Contre La Faim earlier this month in the northeast.

The government denies it, and angry officials accused the monitors of being biased towards the rebels in their ruling.

''We have no independent information ourselves in the UN, but I say we cannot continue in this area unless people will be held accountable for the execution of 17 of our colleagues,'' the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Jan Egeland, told reporters in New York.

The victims, mostly Tamils, were found shot dead in their compound in the northeastern town of Mutur, around 135 miles 220 km northeast of the capital Colombo. It was the worst mass murder of aid staff since a 2003 bomb attack on the United Nations compound in Baghdad.

The Nordic Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), which oversees a 2002 truce that now only holds on paper, says Sri Lankan authorities have obstructed their efforts to investigate, and says it is convinced no armed groups other than the security services could have been responsible.

''I will have some problems to trust a government investigation now because they are too involved in this case,'' outgoing chief monitor Maj Gen Ulf Henricsson said in an interview.

''A democratic and accountable government should support an international commission to look into this case.'' ''This is not just a Sri Lankan problem. This is a worldwide problem if you can kill aid workers without any punishment.'' Eric Schwartz, former US President Bill Clinton's deputy United Nations special envoy for tsunami recovery who is visting the island, has called on the government to guarantee the safety of aid workers.

The last of the SLMM's European Union members are due to cease work on Thursday, the deadline of a rebel ultimatum for them to leave the island after the 25-nation bloc banned them as a terrorist organisation. Many have already left, sharply reducing the mision by two-thirds to around 20 staff.

FIGHTING CONTINUES Fierce fighting continued in the rebel-besieged far north.

Residents in the army-held Jaffna peninsula said rebel artillery shells were falling near residential areas in the local municipality and fear the Tigers are planning an advance.

''Shells fell close to my house last night,'' said Jaffna library assistant Kumaravel, giving only one name. ''I am thinking of moving if it continues tonight.'' The government is insisting that the Tigers must relinquish a town near the mouth of the strategic northeastern harbour of Trincomalee, which is a key supply route to the besieged Jaffna peninsula at the island's far north.

The Tigers, who are fighting for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in the north and east refuse and vow to retaliate with all their might, and analysts expect renewed war to rumble on as long as each side believes it has the upper hand.

President Mahinda Rajapakse, meanwhile, prepared to meet Britain's Tony Blair in London and diplomats said they would discuss what lessons Sri Lanka can learn from Northern Ireland's peace process.

Britain has previously called on Sri Lanka's government to ensure it upholds human rights, but it was not clear whether Blair would address the issue of the slain aid workers.

''It's certainly a good thing the President wants to discuss Northern Ireland,'' said a western diplomat. ''But I wouldn't describe it as anything close to a breakthrough.'' The government does not rule out a meeting with London-based Tiger ideologue Anton Balasingham, but diplomats say it looks unlikely.


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