Sri Lanka sliding back to war

Being detained questioned by armed police is nothing new to K. Lokeshwari. But these days, it's a small inconvenience the 45-year-old Tamil from Sri Lanka's war-wracked northeast is willing to endure if it means she can take refuge in India. Escalating violence in northern Sri Lanka has raised fears the island nation is sliding back toward civil war. And once again, civilians from the country's Tamil minority, squeezed between the government and rebels claiming to fight for Tamil rights, are fleeing.

"I wanted to get my family out before war erupts again," Lokeshwari said, shepherding her two sons, daughter and grandson to a wooden bench at this refugee camp's registration office. "If we stayed any longer, we would be killed by one side or the other," she said. Nearly 150 Sri Lankans have fled to southern India in the past 10 days because of fighting in their homeland, and Indian officials say they expect the trickle of refugees to turn into a stream unless the violence ends. "We expect many, many people to arrive here in the next weeks," said K. Rajagopal, the official in charge of this refugee camp in southern India.

By Sunday, 112 people arrived at this walled camp of low-slung concrete houses, he said. Another 34 people arrived Monday on a rickety wooden boat, landing before dawn on a beach in the nearby village of Dhanushkodi, said police officer V. Subramaniam, who added that they would be questioned before being registered and sent to a camp.

Hindu Tamils have been fleeing Sri Lanka, which lies off India's southern coast, since the country's civil war erupted in 1983 when the Tamil tigers took up arms over discrimination by the predominantly Buddhist Sinahalese majority. Hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in southern India since the start of the war, and there are now more than 100 camps in the region, housing an estimated 65,000 refugees. Many more, no one can say exactly how many, are thought to live outside the camps.

Most came before a 2002 cease-fire. But the truce never completely quelled the violence, and a string of attacks since early December, nearly all blamed on the rebels, have killed 81 people in northeastern Sri Lanka, 40 of them civilians. "A pattern of violence and army retaliation has emerged," said Robert Rajasingham, a 25-year-old Tamil who arrived in India on Friday, slipping out of his home by boat under the cover darkness with 31 other people.

"Both sides are stepping up violence, leaving ordinary citizens caught in the crossfire," he said. Even those not touched directly by the violence have suffered in Sri Lanka's north the Tamil heartland, which is split between government and rebel-held territory. Government officials and soldiers are deeply suspicious of Tamil civilians, fearing they could be Tiger operatives or even suicide bombers.

On Jan. 8, after suspected insurgents rammed a fishing boat packed with explosives into a navy vessel and killed 13 sailors, authorities banned fishing in large swaths of ocean off the coast, a move that hit Tamil fishing communities hard, reports the AP. N.U.