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Sri Lanka Villagers in Shock after Church Attack

Nearly everyone in this seaside hamlet - the old women bent from a lifetime of toil, the fishermen weathered from days at sea, the children in tattered hand-me-downs - fled to the church Sunday as soo
( [email protected] ) Jun 19, 2006 09:50 AM EDT

PESALAI, Sri Lanka (AP) - Nearly everyone in this seaside hamlet - the old women bent from a lifetime of toil, the fishermen weathered from days at sea, the children in tattered hand-me-downs - fled to the church Sunday as soon as they heard a police patrol was coming.

"I thought they were going to come to shoot us all," said L.R. Peiris, a 58-year-old woman crying hysterically at the thought of government forces returning a day after five villagers were killed by Sri Lankan troops.

Like nearly everyone else in Pesalai, all the dead were Tamils, a minority on this South Asian island dominated by Sinhalese.

Five deaths are unexceptional these days in a land of seemingly endless ethnic conflict, a land where the use of suicide bombers was pioneered by the insurgents of the Tamil Tiger movement.

With violence again surging, the rebels have grabbed headlines for targeting civilians. They allegedly staged their bloodiest attack in years Thursday, detonating landmines next to a packed bus and killing 64 people.

Saturday's killings, however, put a rare spotlight on what critics charge is the brutal treatment meted out to Tamil civilians by security forces of the Sinhalese-dominated government, despite official denials.

"There is new phase here of both sides targeting civilians," said Jehan Perera of the independent National Peace Council. "The government is now following a strategy of an eye-for-an-eye."

War is once again on the horizon in Sri Lanka, where four years of relative calm didn't wash away memories of bitter ethnic conflict that killed more than 65,000 people over the two decades before the 2002 ceasefire.

Discrimination against the 3.2 million Tamils, most of whom are Hindu, led the Tigers to take up arms in 1983 in hopes of creating a Tamil homeland. The spark was anti-Tamil riots by Sinhalese, mostly Buddhists who make up nearly three-quarters of the island's 19 million people.

Talks to build on the truce faltered, and in the past year sporadic shootings and bombings have escalated into near-daily violence.

Since April, nearly 700 people, more than half of them civilians, have been killed, according to a ceasefire-monitoring mission from Nordic countries.

Violence continued Sunday when an explosion killed three policemen in the northern district of Vavuniya, police said, blaming the rebels.

Officials blame nearly all civilian deaths on the rebels, and Saturday's killings in Pesalai were no different. Cmdr. D.K.P. Dassanayake, a navy spokesman, said the deaths occurred when rebels attacked a police station in the hamlet. "We do not target civilians," he said.

Witnesses and international aid workers told a very different story.

"We were packed into the church and all we heard was guns firing right outside," said V.P. Cruz, 28, a fisherman, snapping his fingers rapidly as he spoke of the gunfire.

He and numerous others said government forces - a mix of army and navy troopers - then tossed a grenade into the church, killing an elderly women. Four fisherman were seen shot dead near the boats that line the beach, more than two dozen of which were burned.

The belief in Pesalai is they were killed for being Tamils.

"To the government, we are all" rebels, said Cruz, standing in the shadow of the impressive church, its four-storey steeple towering over swaying coconut palms and dwarfing tin-and tiled-roofed homes.

Another young fisherman contrasted the government response to the killings here and Thursday's bus bombing, whose victims were largely Sinhalese.

"The president went to the scene of the bombing to survey the damage. The government paid for the funerals of the victims. Nobody has come here," said the 24-year-old, who did not want to be quoted by name, fearing government reprisals.

Both men were back at the church Sunday, fearing the police patrol. Churches are thought of throughout Sri Lanka as safe havens, and despite Saturday's bloodshed, "this church is still safer than our homes," the 24-year-old said.

Talk to Tamils around Sri Lanka, and they all share similar fears. They say there have been attacks on Tamil civilians in government-held towns throughout the Tamil-dominated north and east.

But with most killings taking place far from the eyes of outside observers, details are often lost in the fog of charge and countercharge over who was actually responsible.

Earlier this month, for instance, a Tamil family of four was found hacked to death in the northwestern village of Vankalai. The government blamed the Tigers, who in turn accused the government.

Weeks later, the consensus in Sri Lanka is that soldiers or a militia allied to the government killed the family, said a western diplomat, who agreed to discuss the case only if not quoted by name because he did not want to harm his relationship with the government.

It's an open question whether such attacks bolster Tamil support for the rebels.

Many Tamils long ago grew disenchanted with the Tigers' brutality and puritanical rule. In the de-facto mini state the rebels run in areas they control in parts of the north and east, adultery is among the many punishable crimes, as is criticizing the Tigers.

Most Pesalai villagers said they want nothing to do with either side.

"All the people now are only in a mood to flee at the sight of uniforms," said a fishermen, who gave his name only as Raja.

The Tigers, he said, "are provoking the army to attack civilians because it is good for publicity."

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