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(New York) - The Sri Lankan security forces must immediately stop assisting abductions of boys and young men by the Karuna group and help those abducted return safely to their families, Human Rights Watch said today.

A Human Rights Watch report to be published next month finds that the Sri Lankan military and police are complicit and, at times, directly cooperating with the Karuna group, an armed faction that split from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2004. Led by V. Muralitharan, a former Tamil Tiger commander known as Karuna, the group has abducted hundreds of boys and young men in eastern Sri Lanka this year.

“We have clear and compelling evidence that government forces are helping Karuna forces abduct boys and young men,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop the abductions and help kidnapped children go home.”

The allegations of government involvement gained major media attention on November 13, when Ambassador Allan Rock, a United Nations advisor on children and armed conflict, reported in Colombo that the Karuna group was abducting children in government-controlled areas of the east. Concluding a 10-day visit to Sri Lanka, Rock found “strong and credible evidence that certain elements of the government security forces are supporting and sometimes participating in the abductions and forced recruitment.” The ambassador also condemned the Tamil Tigers for continuing to recruit children as fighters.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa said he would order an immediate investigation into whether abductions with government involvement were taking place. The government would hold accountable those found to have violated the law, he said. But the military dismissed the charges as “biased” and the foreign minister called them “unfounded.” At a demonstration last week outside UN headquarters in Colombo, protesters accused Rock of sympathy for the Tamil Tigers.

Human Rights Watch has long criticized the Tamil Tigers, including in a 2004 report “Living in Fear,” for abducting thousands of boys and girls for use in its forces. On Monday November 27, Human Rights Watch urged the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against the Tamil Tigers and armed groups in other countries long known to recruit and use child soldiers. The Security Council debates the issue today.

In October, researchers from Human Rights Watch found that, by cooperating with the Karuna group on abductions, the Sri Lankan government has been complicit in the same illegal methods long used by the Tamil Tigers.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF has recorded more than 130 child abductions by the Karuna group in eastern Sri Lanka’s Batticaloa district alone this year. Other abductions are reported in the districts of Ampara and Trincomalee. UNICEF estimates the real number of child abductions is three times higher, because many families are too afraid to report the kidnappings for fear of reprisals.

Human Rights Watch investigated more than 20 child abduction cases by interviewing witnesses and the parents of abducted children in government-controlled areas. In one case, the Sri Lankan army surrounded a village, gathered the young men and boys, recorded their names, and took their photographs. Karuna forces came later that day and abducted eight of the boys and young men.

Parents frequently saw their children, just after they had been kidnapped, in the local offices of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), the political party recently founded by the Karuna group. In Batticaloa and Ampara towns, the TMVP offices are guarded by police. In other places, they are situated less than 100 meters from a Sri Lankan military camp. Government forces would therefore have seen the children in these offices and camps.

Some parents told Human Rights Watch they were allowed to see their children in Karuna camps, which are mostly located north of Welikanda town in Polonnaruwa district. Some had traveled through more than 10 Sri Lankan police and military checkpoints to reach the camps where the children were held, including one at the intersection of the main road and the road that leads to the camps.

“There’s no way the Karuna forces could transport vanloads of abducted children along these roads without government forces knowing,” said Becker.

Human Rights Watch’s report will include maps of the area, with camp and checkpoint locations to illustrate the point.

The government has known about Karuna child abductions since at least June 2006, Human Rights Watch said. That month UNICEF issued a public appeal, saying the forced recruitment of children by Karuna forces had increased since March. The agency appealed to the government “to investigate all abductions and ensure that children in affected areas are given the full protection of the law,” a UNICEF statement said.

In July, a group of more than 40 mothers of abducted children filed a detailed petition to the chief justice of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, seeking an inquiry. Copies went to the president and the minister for disaster management and human rights.

“Official surprise at Ambassador Rock’s allegations is not genuine,” Becker said. “The government has known about Karuna abductions at least since June, if not earlier, and it has failed to stop the kidnappings or investigate the culprits.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Sri Lankan government to take three immediate steps:

  • Publicly order military and police forces to stop abductions by the Karuna group;
  • Facilitate the release and safe return of all children and young men abducted by the Karuna group; and,
  • Investigate and hold accountable all individuals found to have ordered or participated in the abduction of children and young men, including members of the Sri Lankan security forces, regardless of rank.

Human Rights Watch called on the leadership of the Karuna group to cease abductions and release all abducted children and young men in its custody.

“And routine promises are not enough: the Sri Lankan government must act now to protect its children,” Becker said.

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