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Rebels reject Sri Lanka President aid convoy plan

Written by: Staff

Colombo, Nov 20: Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers today rejected government plans to send a one-off aid convoy through its territory to the far north, demanding instead that island's main north-south highway be opened permanently.

President Mahinda Rajapakse's government closed the A9 highway that runs from the northern army-held Jaffna peninsula to the south in August as a new chapter in a two-decade civil war flared, arguing rebel artillery fire had made it unsafe.

That left around 500,000 Tamils cut off from the rest of the island by rebel lines, and while government has been shipping in provisions by sea, food on the peninsula is in short supply and residents say insufficient rations are distributed.

Analysts say the Tigers want the highway reopened because the closure has curbed the movement of their fighters and military equipment, hindered their ability to mount ambushes and prevented them from raising revenue with a ''tax'' they charge from passing vehicles.

''We want the road to be reopened permanently,'' rebel media coordinator Daya Master told Reuters. ''A one-off convoy is not possible.'' Rajapakse's office said late yesterday it would allow a convoy of sealed trucks to travel overland to Jaffna at an unspecified date ''as a one time measure'', and appealed to lorry owners to provide vehicles to take part.

The gesture, which comes after weeks of requests by aid organisations and rights groups to reopen the road to allow freedom of movement and goods, also comes ahead of a key donor meeting in Washington later today.

Sri Lanka's main financial donors, the United States, Japan, Norway and the European Union, are expected to call for a halt to hostilities that have killed more than 3,000 people so far this year and for the reopening of the A9.

Residents in Jaffna, where around 25,000 people are still queueing up for scarce seats on boats to escape the blockade, say they desperately need additional stocks of food.

Prices of goods from vegetables to mosquito coils have soared on the peninsula, and some of the poorest are selling their state rations of rice and lentils to be able to buy other essentials.

''Today's important need is food at normal price. We are tired of paying 50 rupees (45 cents) for an egg,'' said 56-year-old Jaffna government servant James Ratnananthan.

''When food comes in regularly at the normal price, there will not be a rush to go to Colombo,'' he added.

Many ordinary Sri Lankans fear renewed fighting, with near daily attacks and military clashes, couild snowball into a full-blown return to a war that has already killed more than 67,000 people since 1983.


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