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Number of Missing Sri Lankan Tamils Increasing, Human Rights Groups Say


As violence surges in Sri Lanka, so does the number of abductions and disappearance of mostly Tamil men. That is the assessment of human rights activists and international aid groups operating in the Indian Ocean nation. Raymond Thibodeaux files this report for VOA from Batticolao, on the eastern edge of Sri Lanka.

Soli Chana, 23, is trying to find out what happened to her husband. Witnesses say three men in civilian clothes stopped him, not far from his house in Vanuniya in central Sri Lanka. They handcuffed him, shoved in a plain white van and sped away. That was a year and a half ago. He has not been heard from since.

"She is shocked and upset, [very] upset. She made complaint to the police, the Red Cross, the Human Rights Commission and ICRC [Red Cross/Crescent] also," Chana said. "All they can say is, 'We will search.'"

Thousands of other families across Sri Lanka are doing the same - making the rounds at human rights agencies to find family members who have disappeared.

The missing and the families left behind, most of them left struggling, impoverished without their breadwinners, are caught up in a growing list of atrocities being committed by both sides of this 25-year conflict between the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan government and Tamil militants, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The American government and others, around the world, say the LTTE is a terrorist organization.

The numbers of the disappeared are in dispute by the Sri Lankan government, but human rights groups and foreign observer say that thousands of mostly Tamil men have been abducted in the past decade and remain missing.

Palitha Kohona is Sri Lanka's secretary of foreign affairs*. He says the government is sincere in trying to locate those who have disappeared. He says the numbers are being exaggerated by Tamil activists and international aid agencies to tarnish the government's human rights record. Kohona says he helped investigate the disappearance of 355 people from list that an American diplomat recently handed to him.

"To us, one person disappearing is one too many," Kohona said. "When you have 355 it is a matter of serious concern. But, in that list, when we went through the list, there were some repetitions in it. There were 23 in that list whom we have located, up to now, and they are well and kicking. And, there are others whose names are suspiciously similar to those recorded by our immigration authorities as people who have left the country."

He says nearly half of the 355 people on the list were accounted for and that authorities are continuing their investigation.

Father Henry Miller is a Jesuit priest who has . He has a list of eight-thousand people - mostly young Tamil men - who have been abducted in the past decade. He says most of them are still missing.

He says the Sri Lankan government is touting a recent election here as a sign that democracy is flourishing in a part of the country once controlled by the LTTE. The winner of that election - the first here in 14 years - was an supposedly-less-militarized political split-off of the LTTE, known as the Tamil Makkal Vidutalaip Pullikal, led by a former LTTE commander.

For some, their victory could usher in a new era of trust between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil community.

But Father Miller is skeptical. He says the TMVP is merely a proxy party of the government.

And, now the government can say we have restored self-government to the people of the Batticaloa District and it has not been done," Miller said. "This is the government's program. And, with this they proclaim to the world that they have liberated and restored democratic government to the people of Batticaloa. It is a falsity."

Father Miller says that, in the government's ongoing attempt to control Tamil militants, they treat all Tamils as potential terrorists. He says that, with Sri Lanka's civil war flaring up once again in the Tamil-dominated north, that is not likely to change anytime soon.

A March report issued by the U.S. State Department cited almost daily extrajudicial killings and attacks against civilians by the army, paramilitaries and pro-government militias in the government-controlled Jaffna Peninsula.

* - Title corrected 8 April 2008. Palitha Kohona originally incorrectly identified.

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