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(New York) - Sri Lanka's separatist Tamil Tigers are subjecting ethnic Tamils in their northern stronghold, the Vanni, to forced recruitment, abusive forced labor, and restrictions on movement that place their lives at risk, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 17-page report, "Trapped and Mistreated: LTTE Abuses against Civilians in the Vanni," details how the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which have been fighting for an independent Tamil state for 25 years, are brutally abusing the Tamil population in areas under their control.

"The LTTE claims to be fighting for the Tamil people, but it is responsible for much of the suffering of civilians in the Vanni," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "As the LTTE loses ground to advancing government forces, their treatment of the very people they say they are fighting for is getting worse."

In the face of an ongoing government military offensive, the LTTE has increased the pressure on the civilian population under its control. Having long used a coercive pass system to prevent civilians from leaving areas it controls, the LTTE has now completely prohibited movement out of the Vanni, except for some medical emergencies. By refusing to allow displaced persons to leave for government-held territory, the group has severely restricted their access to essential humanitarian relief. Only about a thousand people have managed to flee the conflict zone since March 2008.

"By refusing to allow people their basic rights to freedom of movement, the LTTE has trapped hundreds of thousands of civilians in a dangerous war zone," said Adams.

The LTTE has a long history of forced recruitment. There has been a dramatic increase in the practice of compelling young men and women, including children, to join their forces. The group has recently gone beyond its long-standing "one person per family" forced recruitment policy in the territory it controls and now sometimes requires two or more family members to join its ranks.

"Trapped in the LTTE's iron fist, ordinary Tamils are forcibly recruited as fighters and forced to engage in dangerous labor near the front lines," said Adams.

While increased international pressure and other factors had led to a decrease in its recruitment of children, recent reports indicate that the group has stepped up child recruitment in the Vanni. LTTE cadres have urged 14- to 18-year-olds at schools to join. The group often sends 17-year-olds for military training, apparently calculating that by the time such cases are reported to protection agencies, the youths will have turned 18 and no longer be considered child soldiers.

"Last year they were taking the people born in 1990 - now those born in 1991," a humanitarian official from the Vanni told Human Rights Watch. "They look at the family identity cards and take the young ones. If people of military age go into hiding, they will take younger children or the father, until they get the boys or girls they want."

During the past 25 years, the LTTE has killed large numbers of civilians, committed political assassinations in Sri Lanka and abroad, and carried out suicide bombings. It has systematically eliminated most political opposition within the minority Tamil community and is responsible for killing many journalists and members of rival organizations. In the areas under its control, the LTTE has ruled through fear, denying basic freedoms of expression, association, assembly, and movement.

In "Trapped and Mistreated," Human Rights Watch calls upon the LTTE to:

  • Stop preventing civilians from leaving areas under its control; respect the right to freedom of movement of civilians, including the right of civilians to move to government-controlled territory for safety;
  • Stop all forced recruitment into the LTTE; end all abductions and coercion;
  • End all recruitment of children under the age of 18; cease the use of children in military operations; release all child combatants currently in its ranks, as well as all persons who were recruited when children but are now over the age of 18;
  • Stop all abusive or unpaid forced labor, including labor it characterizes as "voluntary"; cease demanding that all families provide labor to the LTTE; stop forcing civilians to engage in labor directly related to the conduct of military operations, such as constructing trenches and bunkers;
  • Provide humanitarian agencies and UN agencies safe and unhindered access to areas under the LTTE's control, and guarantee the security of all humanitarian and UN workers, including Vanni residents working as humanitarian or UN staff.

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