Sri Lanka's escalating war of words over aid security

By Peter Apps, Reuters AlterNet
16 Aug 2007 12:24:00 GMT
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There's been some unusually strong rhetoric out of Sri Lanka, even by the standards of the conflict there, with aid agencies attracting heavy government criticism.

On Wednesday, a senior government official described United Nations humanitarian chief John Holmes as a "terrorist who supported terrorism" and accused him of being bribed by Tamil Tiger rebels after he told Reuters the island was one of the most dangerous places in the world for aid workers.

That came only a couple of days after another government official said negligence by international aid group Action Contre la Faim (ACF) was to blame for the massacre of 17 of their local staff a year ago.

Nordic ceasefire monitors blamed security forces for the killings in August last year in the northeastern town of Muttur, and independent observers say the official investigation has effectively stalled and risks looking like a cover-up.

The figures for aid worker deaths in Sri Lanka are certainly high enough to discomfort aid-agency security experts, who almost without exception name the country as among those that give them greatest concern.

Holmes said almost 30 humanitarian workers had been killed in Sri Lanka over the past 18 months. A consortium of aid agencies operating in the island puts the number at 34, although the government questions that figure.

It seems to come down to who you class as an aid worker, with some of the dead effectively contractors. The government also says that last year's two mass disappearances of staff from the Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation - which aid workers say is effectively the aid arm of the Tamil Tigers, despite claims to the contrary - might be fakes carried out by the rebels. Given what's happened since, most aid workers now suspect they were genuine.

By any measure, the numbers are high - and the ACF massacre was one of the worst killings of aid staff in recent history.

Describing the U.N. Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs as a terrorist and accusing him of bribery isn't something I've heard before. But the angry allegations aimed at ACF do echo some of those I heard from the families of the victims outside the morgue in Trincomalee a year ago.

The 17 workers had been dead for days by the time their bodies were loaded onto tractors and taken from the blood-spattered compound in Muttur to the hospital. The stench could be smelled streets away, the autopsies had to be conducted almost in the open, and the wailing of the families was heart-rending.

Some were already accusing security forces of carrying out the killings. But they were also angry at ACF for sending their loved ones into the town in the first place.

The 17 staff had been sent across by ferry from Trincomalee to Muttur only to be trapped there when a naval battle erupted in the harbour. They stayed in their compound for days as the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) both fought through and shelled the town. When the civilian population fled south on foot and by vehicle through the battle, they stayed put. Then they were killed.

Most relief agencies had cut back or stopped sending staff into the front-line town after a couple of grenade attacks weeks earlier. There were soon mutterings among aid workers in Trincomalee that the ACF team had been left dangerously exposed.

Almost all of the dead were ethnic Tamils, stranded in a predominantly Muslim town between the rebels - also Tamils - and security forces mainly from the majority Sinhalese population. There had long been accusations in the local area that aid groups were favouring Tamils and that their operations in rebel-held areas were effectively helping the LTTE.

ACF says their internal investigation after the massacre suggested no one could have known that going to Muttur that day would be so dangerous. They say other aid groups would have made the same decision to order their staff to stay in the compound after fighting began.

"We couldn't know that it was a mistake," ACF spokeswoman Lucille Grosjean told AlertNet from Colombo.

After the incident, ACF cut back and has now ceased its humanitarian operations in Sri Lanka, although it remains on the island to monitor the progress of the investigation. It has also imposed much more rigorous security procedures, limiting the movement of local staff without an expatriate to escort them.

"We consider the risk to our national employees is very high," Grosjean said.

The head of the Sri Lankan government peace secretariat says ACF has only paid the families paltry compensation and that they would almost certainly win more if they took action against the agency in a European court.

ACF says it paid roughly two years salary to the families of each of the dead - a figure agreed after consulting with other aid and U.N. agencies. It says all the families have signed documents saying they were fully compensated.

ACF argues that it has nothing to hide and is happy to co-operate with any investigation - indeed, it says the only reason it remains in Sri Lanka is to try and ensure that a proper investigation does go ahead to bring to justice whoever shot their staff.

"If they want to do an inquiry about ACF and killing, then no problem," Grosjean said. "We have nothing to hide."