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Sri Lankan Paramilitary Organizations Accused of Targeting Civilians

As Sri Lanka threatens to slide back into all-out civil war, much talk is focused on paramilitaries - armed groups accused of carrying out attacks on civilians. Both the government and the Tamil Tiger separatists deny any links to paramilitary organizations, and blame the other for such groups' actions. Meanwhile, civilians are caught in the middle.

Raj Rajarammohan is a Tamil businessman and the head of the Chamber of Commerce in Trincomalee, in eastern Sri Lanka.

The town is made up primarily of Tamils, Sri Lanka's largest ethnic minority. But it is also home to Muslims - and to Sinhalese, the largest ethnic group, which dominates the central government in the south.

That makes Trincomalee a lightening rod for conflict between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - the Tamil Tiger rebels. Both claim they want to save a 2002 cease-fire, but deadly violence erupts almost daily, and civilians like Rajarammohan are often the ones who suffer.

More than 800 Sri Lankans have died of violence in the past six months, many of them in what some call the country's "shadow war" - attacks against civilians that appear to be orchestrated by one side or the other.

That is what Rajarammohan says happened in April when a bomb went off in central Trincomalee. The bomb prompted a "riot" - which he says appeared to be very well organized.

"Soon after the bomb blast, within five minutes, hundreds of people - a mob - they already had these cans of fuel, and guns, and, you know, swords and clubs," said Raj Rajarammohan. "They just came in. I mean, they were targeting all the Tamil businessmen, that is how we feel. Because all the 32 shops that were gutted down, were Tamils'. And Sinhala shops and the Muslim shops... there was no damage whatsoever."

Sri Lanka's civil war dates from 1983, when the Tamil Tigers began their campaign for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority. More than 60,000 died before a cease-fire, brokered by Norway, was signed in 2002. For a time, the violence all but disappeared. Last year, it began again in earnest.

There have been several recent clashes that fall into the category of conventional war - battles at sea between the rebels and the Sri Lankan navy, and bombing raids by the Sri Lankan air force in retaliation for suicide bombings attributed to the rebels.

The perpetrators of other incidents, like the attack described by Rajarammohan, are more difficult to pin down. The rebels charge that the perpetrators are groups backed by the government. The government denies this, and independent European ceasefire monitors say they are not sure who is telling the truth.

One group accused of violence against civilians is a splinter faction of the Tigers. In 2004, the rebel group, which had been known as a highly disciplined organization, split into two factions along geographic lines. Fighters from the east charged that the leadership, based in the north, was using them for the heaviest fighting.

The rebel leadership says the government orchestrated the split, and now use the eastern splinter faction to carry out violence against civilians. That way, the rebels argue, the government can claim that the Tamil Tigers are to blame for exacerbating tensions.

Ellian is the alias used by the Tamil Tigers' regional political chief outside Trincomalee. He says the rebels recently captured two paramilitary soldiers who confessed that they were trained by the Sri Lankan army, and given safe-haven in government-controlled territory.

He says the paramilitaries are undergoing training in an army-controlled area, so how can the government say there are no links? He says the army is keeping its mouth shut, but everybody knows it is only with the connivance of the army that the paramilitaries can operate.

Thorfinnur Omarsson is the spokesman for the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, the European ceasefire monitors. He says there is some evidence to support the claim that the paramilitaries have freedom of movement in government territory.

"There have been some indications, and we've already reported them," he said. "There are indications pointing towards [that], but on the other hand, we hear many stories, and sometimes we are 99 percent sure, but we don't have the complete evidence for it.

The Sri Lankan government vehemently denies any links to paramilitary organizations, which they consider to be a tactical ploy by the Tamil Tigers.

The peace monitors and other experts also point out that the rebels too, may be using paramilitary organizations in certain circumstances. Again, the goal is to hide the identity of the perpetrators of violence.

Rajarammohan, the Trincomalee businessman, says for civilians caught in the cross-fire, who is at fault is beside the point.

"It is a cold war, which is very ruthless," he said. "It is much worse than conventional war. Because people who are getting killed are innocent civilians. The people armed are quite safe, very safe."

Rajarammohan says he would prefer to see the civil war declared again. Then, he says, the government and the Tamil Tigers could start targeting each other, and maybe leave civilians alone.