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(New York) - With the complicity or willful blindness of the Sri Lankan government, the Karuna group has abducted and forcibly recruited hundreds of children in eastern Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The Karuna group, led by V. Muralitharan, a.k.a. Karuna, a former commander with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), split from the Tamil Tigers in 2004 and now cooperates with the Sri Lankan military in their common fight against the LTTE.

In the new 100-page report, “Complicit in Crime: State Collusion in Abductions and Child Recruitment by the Karuna Group,” Human Rights Watch documents a pattern of abductions and forced recruitment by the Karuna group over the past year. With case studies, maps and photographs, it shows how Karuna cadres operate with impunity in government-controlled areas, abducting boys and young men, training them in camps, and deploying them for combat.

“The Karuna group is abducting children in broad daylight in areas firmly under government control,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government is fully aware of the abductions but allows them to happen because it’s eager for an ally against the Tamil Tigers.”

Based on research in Sri Lanka, including areas where the Karuna group operates, the report features testimony from two dozen family members of boys and young men abducted by the Karuna group. They described armed Karuna members forcibly taking their brothers, nephews and sons from their homes, workplaces, temples, playgrounds, public roads, and even a wedding.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has documented more than 200 cases of child recruitment by the Karuna group in Sri Lanka’s eastern districts, where the group is active. But the real number is certainly much higher due to underreporting.

Children are not the only targets. Human Rights Watch found that the Karuna group has abducted and forcibly recruited hundreds of young men between ages 18 and 30. Human Rights Watch knows of only two cases in which the Karuna group abducted girls. It generally targets poor families, and often those who have already had a child recruited by the Tamil Tigers.

At least since June 2006, and probably before, the Sri Lankan government has known about the Karuna abductions. The districts of the east where they have taken place are firmly under government control, with myriad military and police checkpoints and security force camps.

“After years of condemning child recruitment by the Tamil Tigers, the government is now complicit in the same crimes,” said Jo Becker, child rights advocate at Human Rights Watch, who has written extensively about the Tamil Tigers. “The government’s collusion on child abductions by the Karuna group highlights its hypocrisy.”

In one incident in June 2006, the Karuna group abducted 13 boys and young men, holding some of them for a while in a shop across the street from an army post. Some of the parents pleaded with the soldiers to intervene. Two soldiers spoke with the Karuna group members, parents told Human Rights Watch, but the soldiers did not stop the abduction.

On the same day in another village, soldiers from the Sri Lankan army gathered seven boys and young men in a field, checked their IDs, and took their photographs. Members of the Karuna group arrived that night and abducted four of the seven, although it remains unclear in this instance whether the army forces were deliberately acting in collusion with the Karuna group.

After abducting boys and young men, the Karuna group often holds them temporarily in the nearest office of its political party, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), which are routinely guarded by the Sri Lankan military or police. Parents told Human Rights Watch that they either saw their abducted sons in these offices or TMVP officials confirmed to families that they had been there.

After a few days, the Karuna group usually transfers abductees to one of its camps in the jungle about 10 kilometers northwest of Welikanda town in the Polonnaruwa district, about 50 kilometers northwest of Batticaloa town. Welikanda is where the Sri Lankan Army’s 23rd division has its base. The area is firmly under government control, as is the main A11 road from the eastern districts to the Welikanda area. Travel through the area necessitates passing through numerous army and police checkpoints, and transporting abducted youth to the camps would have been impossible without the complicity of government security forces. The Karuna camp at Mutugalla village is near a Sri Lankan army post.

“Not only do government forces fail to stop the abductions, but they allow the Karuna group to transport kidnapped children through checkpoints on the way to their camps,” Becker said.

Human Rights Watch said that the Sri Lankan police are also complicit in their unwillingness to seriously investigate complaints filed by the parents of abducted boys and young men. In some cases, the police reportedly refused to register parents’ complaints. In other cases, the police registered the complaint but failed to undertake what the family considered a proper investigation. In no known case did the police secure the child’s release.

In a November interview with Human Rights Watch, Karuna denied allegations that his forces were abducting or recruiting children. He said his forces had no members under age 20, and that they would discipline any commander who tried to recruit a person under that age. He subsequently made commitments to the UN to issue policy statements banning child recruitment, to release any child found among the Karuna group’s ranks, and to provide UNICEF with access to his camps.

On January 2, 2007, the TMVP, Karuna’s political party, provided UNICEF with regulations for its military wing, stating 18 as the minimum age for recruitment, and specifying penalties for members who conscript children.

There is no sign yet that these commitments are being honored. Local human rights activists and international agencies report that the Karuna group continued to abduct boys and young men in November and December 2006.

In November, after UN envoy Allan Rock raised allegations of government complicity in Karuna abductions, the Sri Lankan government promised an investigation. Instead, government and military officials launched attacks against Rock’s credibility.

“The government must stop making excuses and launch a serious and impartial investigation of government complicity in Karuna crimes,” Adams said. “If the government won’t investigate, then it must allow an independent, international inquiry.”

The LTTE has long abducted children into its forces, and used them as infantry soldiers, intelligence officers, medics, and even suicide bombers. Human Rights Watch documented the practice in a 2004 report, “Living in Fear: Child Soldiers and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.”

The new report includes updated information on Tamil Tiger child abductions and urges the UN to impose targeted sanctions on the group because of its status as a repeat offender. The UN should insist that the Karuna group immediately adopt and implement an action plan to end all recruitment and use of child soldiers, and consider targeted sanctions if it fails to do so, Human Rights Watch said.

On February 9, a UN Security Council working group on children and armed conflict is scheduled to consider reported violations against children by all parties to Sri Lanka’s armed conflict. The working group will make recommendations for Security Council action.

In the meantime, Human Rights Watch called on the Tamil Tigers, the Karuna group, and the Sri Lankan government to stop the recruitment of children. The Karuna group and the Tamil Tigers should immediately release all children among their ranks.

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