Sri Lanka accuses aid groups of supporting war

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka's military accused "a vicious coalition" of international aid groups Tuesday of harboring terrorists and seeking to prolong the island's civil war for economic gain.

The military has come under increasing international criticism in recent weeks for allegedly ignoring the plight of civilians in a shrinking war zone in the island's northeast as it pushes to end the decades-old war with the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Aid groups have accused the military of shelling "no-fire" zones set up to harbor the tens of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting, a charge the military denies.

The military, in a statement on the Defense Ministry's Web site, said aid groups operating in Sri Lanka had "hoodwinked" the world and did not want the war to end "to secure their income through a continued bloodshed."

The statement said the war had "been well engineered and blessed by a vicious coalition of local and international bodies" in addition to the Tamil Tiger rebels, who are formally known as Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE.

The only aid group named in the statement was CARE International, which said last week that one of its local workers was killed in a "no-fire" zone when a shell severed his leg and he was unable to get medical care.

The military alleged that the man was a "hardcore" Tiger cadre planted in the organization "perhaps with the knowledge of its officials." It said he had been killed fighting on the front lines and not in a "no-fire" zone.

Nick Osborne, the Sri Lanka director for CARE, declined to comment directly on the accusations.

"The issue is very sensitive. Our response at this moment is to respect the loss of a staff member and give our thoughts to his family," Osborne said.

A CARE spokeswoman in Geneva said the group was apolitical and had no connections with terrorist or military organizations.

"CARE International does not support terrorist activities," said Melanie Brooks. She said CARE has worked poverty reduction programs in Sri Lanka since 1950.

Accounts of conditions and incidents in the war zone cannot be verified because independent journalists are barred from traveling to the north. The government has barred international employees of aid groups from the war zone since last year, though some groups still have local staffers in that region.

The rebel holdouts — along with tens of thousands of terrified civilians the government says are being used as human shields — are confined to about 11 square miles (28 square kilometers) of jungle and beach on the northeastern coast.

Verbal and physical attacks have been common on groups seen by the Sri Lankan public as too harsh on the government and not critical enough of the Tamil Tigers.

Earlier this month, the government strongly denounced U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay for a report that said 150,000 to 180,000 civilians are trapped in the war zone, and that 2,800 civilians have died there since late January.

The government disputed the numbers, with Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe saying the report was unprofessional for relying on unsubstantiated figures.

In early February, about 150 people threw rocks at the Red Cross office in Colombo because of its reports on civilian casualties.

More than 70,000 people have been killed since the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam began fighting since 1983 for an independent state for the Tamil minority. Tamils say they have suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.