Muslim families flee homes in eastern Sri Lanka fearing rebel assault
Sat September 23, 2006 06:42 EDT .
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Hundreds of Muslim families are fleeing their homes in eastern Sri Lanka amid fears of a Tamil Tiger rebel assault to reclaim territory taken by government forces in recent fighting, a local government leader said Saturday.
The chairman of the government in the eastern coastal town of Mutur, who goes by the single name Thoufeek, said 700 to 800 families _ around 10 percent of the population _ left on Friday and Saturday after the Tamil Tiger separatists warned that they were planning an offensive.
Mutur's residents, who are mostly Muslims, only returned to their homes two weeks ago from refugee camps. They had been driven from the town by weeks of heavy fighting and artillery assaults in August that killed dozens of civilians.
A government representative was not immediately available to comment.
Foreign mediators are struggling to keep alive a 2002 cease-fire which has unraveled amid clashes that have killed at least 1,000 combatants and more than 100 civilians since July.
On Friday, hundreds of people boarded boats in Mutur, about 230 kilometers (140 miles) east of the capital, Colombo, and sailed for the nearby Muslim-majority island of Kinniyai, Thoufeek said in a telephone interview.
Government forces refused to let them pass by road, said Thoufeek, who also heads the regional Muslim Council.
Witnesses said the roadblocks were removed Saturday after meetings between the government and local authorities. Some 8,000 Muslim families live in the area.
Many had reluctantly returned home in time for the Islamic fasting month Ramadan which begins Sunday in Sri Lanka, but will now leave ``because of another disaster,'' Thoufeek said.
Government ministers traveled to the area Saturday to try to convince the local population to stay, but Thoufeek said the residents were too afraid after Tamil rebels distributed a leaflet saying they could launch hostilities on Mutur ``at any moment.''
The contents of the leaflet could not immediately be verified, but Thoufeek said it apologized and told people to immediately leave for their own safety.
In overnight violence elsewhere, a Tamil Tiger rebel was killed in a gunbattle in the volatile northern Jaffna Peninsula, the military said in a statement Saturday. It also accused separatists of murdering a civilian woman Friday in the eastern town of Batticaloa.
The rebels were not immediately available to comment on the incidents.
The Tamil rebels began fighting in 1983 for a separate homeland in the north and east for Sri Lanka's largest ethnic minority. The conflict was nominally halted by a Norway-brokered cease-fire in 2002 although the recent wave of violence has threatened to drag the country back into full-scale civil war.
Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar on Friday met the Tamil Tigers' political leader, Suppiah Thamilselvan, in the northern rebel stronghold Kilinochchi. The two discussed a recent rash of abductions, the rebels said on their official Web site. No additional details were available.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed or have disappeared in shadowy circumstances since December, when the latest surge of fighting began in earnest.
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Published: Sat Sep 23 10:08:45 EDT 2006