02/02/2006, 00.00
SRI LANKA

Uncertainty and tensions on the eve of Independence Day celebrations

Ahead of the February 4 festivities, the archbishop of Colombo tells the country that unity is needed to reach peace. The kidnapping of humanitarian workers in the eastern part of the country threatens the Geneva meeting, which is the last chance for a deal between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Ahead of celebrations of Independence Day (February 4, 1948), the archbishop of Colombo reminded the Catholic community and the whole country that unity is needed to reach peace. There are however fears that rising tensions between the government and the separatists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) might scuttle the upcoming meeting between the two parties in Geneva (Switzerland).

"We celebrate the anniversary of our national independence this year amidst [. . .] uncertainty and tension," said Mgr Oswald Gomis. "What basically began as a language issue has now blown up to reach high proportions to the extent of demanding territorial division and separation. This has brought us to a prolonged war [. . . but] much as it may be, no problem is insurmountable."

With unity as an "imperative", the prelate spoke about the past. "As Sri Lankans we have faced many a trial in our [. . .] history of over 3000 years. Foreign influences, political, cultural and economic have had their impact on us both for the better and for the worse. But, we have been able to survive all this in spite of our limitations."

"My firm hope is that we would be able to manifest that same unity and co-operative action in finding a solution to the present crisis," he noted. "We have come almost to a point of no return unless our political leaders think broadly and act nobly. We are happy to note the President moving in this direction," he added.

News from the country's north-east are not very good however. Yesterday, in Batticaloa two of ten humanitarian workers from the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) abducted in the last four days were freed.

The authorities believe that the TRO is very close to the Tamil Tigers.

The abductions, which have been blamed on shadowy "paramilitary" groups, might wreck the Geneva meeting agreed to by rebels and the government to jumpstart peace talks that stalled in 2003.

"If Tamil civilians or humanitarian organisation members are being abducted or killed, it makes it very difficult for us to go to Geneva," said S Puleedevan, head of the LTTE peace secretariat.

According to the rebels, the abductions are attributable to fringe elements within the LTTE itself backed by the government.

For their part, authorities in Colombo denied having any knowledge about the incident and said they would investigate.

The Tamil Tigres have been fighting for the independence of the north-eastern part of the country and in 20 years of clashes with government forces some 60,000 people have been killed.

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