05/30/2006, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Parish priest urges respect for civilian lives

by Danielle Vella

The priest told AsiaNews about the massacre of 13 Tamils on the tiny island of Kayts. "People are killed by those supposed to protect them".

The parish priest of a tiny island off Jaffna has made an impassioned plea for the safety of civilians after 13 Tamils were massacred there earlier this month. His appeal came as news broke of the killing of 12 construction workers employed on a state project near Batticaloa.

The civilians killed on the night of 13 May, including two children, were allegedly gunned down by Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) personnel – who control the islands – and members of an anti-LTTE Tamil militia. The killings took place in two incidents in the Allaipiddy and Velanai islets along Kayts road in northern Sri Lanka, arena of war between the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the security forces.

Speaking to AsiaNews, the parish priest of Allaipiddy, Fr Amalathas Anthonypillai, appealed to the international community: "Try to safeguard civilians. People's rights should be protected but instead they are killed, the ultimate violation. It is unacceptable that the security forces should kill citizens supposed to be under their care. This should not happen any more to the Tamil people, they have experienced it for long enough. Let's have respect for human rights in our land."

Although the plea of Fr Amalathas was aimed largely at curbing violations by the security forces, it coincided with a decision by the European Union to rap the LTTE. The EU yesterday, 29 May, decided to add the Tigers to its list of banned terrorist organisations, which means the rebels' assets in EU states will be frozen. The Tigers, who get substantial funds from Europe's Tamil diaspora, say the move will serve to exacerbate "conditions of war".

Their warning spells out more suffering for civilians. The Kayts killings are only one horrific example of people recently slaughtered in Sri Lanka's civil war. Only today, 30 May, 12 Sinhalese workers were reported killed in the east: the army accused suspected rebels of the killings, a charge the Tigers denied. News reports say 300 people have been killed in escalating violence since the beginning of April.

Perhaps, what makes the 13 May massacre in Kayts particularly shocking is that a four-year-old child and a four-month-old baby were among the victims, shot dead with their parents as they slept. The Ketheeswaran family was killed, together with another four people, in a house near St Philip Neri parish church in Allaipiddy. Fr Amalathas recalled that night: "At 8.20pm, I heard gunshots, and people rushed to my church for shelter." He was the first to rush to the spot, where he found the dead bodies and three injured people.

At first, Navy personnel refused to allow the priest to proceed to Jaffna hospital with the injured; he was allowed to go only after he contacted the district judge. One man died later in hospital. Meanwhile, in nearby Velanai and Vangalady, a gang of masked and armed youth, speaking Sinhala and Tamil, killed four people.

Both warring parties have blamed each other for the killings, but Fr Amalathas backed residents' claims that the SLN were the culprits. "I asked the owner of the house attacked in Allaipiddy and the wife of one victim, who are eye witnesses," he continued. "They said three out of the four attackers in Allaipiddy were Navy men who were known to them. The owners of the house had a small shop and the SLN men would go to buy Gold Leaf [cigarettes] and things like that. The survivors said they could pinpoint the people in an identification parade."

Fr Amalathas added that although he informed the SLN about the incident, they conducted no inquiries at all, although they control the island.

But the SLN have denied responsibility, and the northern navy commander has promised to keep the islets safe, a pledge neither Fr Amalathas nor the people trust. In fact, the priest has left Allaipiddy, like many of his people. "The SLN commander held a meeting for the people, saying he would offer security and that I, as parish priest, would be in charge of maintaining peace. But we refused, saying we would not return unless there were negotiations between the forces and LTTE, and both guaranteed security."

Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapakse, has announced an investigation into the killings. However, as Amnesty International noted in a statement about the incident, "there is a disturbing pattern of incomplete or ineffective investigations by the government, with the result that perpetrators of such violence generally operate with impunity".

And civilians, who have been bearing the brunt of hostilities for well over two decades, have little faith in the outcome of investigations. "I feel the people have been undergoing suffering, real suffering, for a long time," added Fr Amalathas. "In 1990, 84 youth were arrested from the islets when the security forces launched Operation Fort, and still there is no news of them. Now, after 16 years, there was another massive violation that terrorized the village. The people's cry is that they will never have to undergo such an experience again".

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