The government and Scandinavian cease-fire monitors have fired out letters to each other over the existence of armed groups operating in state-controlled areas with both parties trading charges just weeks ahead of the next round of peace talks.
In a two-page letter addressed to Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission`s outgoing chief Hagrup Haukland said the monitors had encountered 10-15 armed men in civilian clothes operating in Valaichchenai, and they told the SLMM that they belong to the Karuna faction.
Mr. Haukland also said several other sightings of armed civilians claiming to represent Karuna had been often reported to the SLMM. Asserting that the monitors have strong suspicions about armed groups also veering toward Vavuniya, the letter added the SLMM was aware of 11 civilians being killed in government-controlled areas in the east and six in Vavuniya since Feb. 23, the day on which talks in Geneva concluded.
Mr. Haukland`s letter was sent in response to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa`s strongly-worded note about the contents of an SLMM statement issued last week, after suspected Tigers sank a navy fast attack craft in Kalpitiya, killing eight sailors. The navy said the LTTE suicide boat was carrying `war-like weapons and ammunition`.
In a single-page letter, Mr. Rajapaksa accused the SLMM of `misleading,` and making `defamatory,` inferences in its statement. He was specifically referring to paragraph 5 of the SLMM statement which said;
`The Sri Lankan Army has recently dismissed claims that armed groups are operating in Government-controlled areas. However, based on SLMM`s monitoring activities and experience on the ground the Mission does not share this view and we would like to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to take this matter seriously and not close their eyes to armed elements that are to our knowledge still operating in Government-controlled areas.`
The defence secretary charged the conclusion SLMM had arrived at was `without any conclusive evidence`. He subsequently asked for a meeting with Mr. Haukland to discuss the issue.
Mr. Haukland responded in a letter the following day, March 30 (Thursday), a day before he ended his term as head of mission. Defence secretary Rajapaksa is part of the President`s entourage now on a state visit to Pakistan.
At the end of the Feb. 22-23 Geneva talks, both the government and the LTTE vowed to end a spate of violence.
Although the LTTE had earlier described the March 2003 Karuna rebellion as an internal matter of the Tigers and asked the government to stay out of the issue, that stand changed.
The February talks were dominated by demands by the LTTE for the government to disarm paramilitaries, specifically the Karuna group. The LTTE produced a dossier of what it called `evidence,` of government forces support toward the Karuna group. The military denies any linkage.
Despite the SLMM assertions that the Karuna group continues to operate from within government-controlled areas, it admits it has no evidence of military support for the group.
The Tigers` chief negotiator Anton Balasingham said on Wednesday, the next round of talks would also be dominated by the same issue if the government failed to dismantle armed groups.