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Churches in Sri Lanka call for immediate cease-fire

Churches in Sri Lanka have called for an immediate halt to an upsurge of violence between government forces and rebels seeking autonomy for Tamil-majority areas in the predominantly Buddhist island nation of mainly Sinhalese speakers.

"We are in a boiling pot with both going for each other’s throat. The only way out is an immediate cease-fire," the Rev. Kingsley Perera, chairperson of the National Christian Council (NCC) of Sri Lanka told Ecumenical News International from Colombo.

The call by the churches follows three weeks of intense fighting between government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in their strongholds in the north and the east of the country.

The violence has virtually ended a fragile cease-fire in force since February 2002, engulfing the island in new violence that has claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians while displacing more than 100 000 people.

"We call on both the LTTE and the government to put an immediate halt to their hostilities and to sit together and start talking to each other," the NCC said in a 16 August statement. "We are really worried about the civilian casualty and their displacement," said Perera, who is also the president of the Baptist Council of Sri Lanka.

Fifteen people were killed on 13 August inside the a Roman Catholic church on the Jaffna peninsula in the north of the island after a shell allegedly fired by government forces hit the church where hundreds of people had taken refuge.

The peninsula is controlled by the government but it is cut off from the rest of the mainland by territory held by rebels who consider it to be an integral part of an autonomous Tamil homeland.

Confusion surrounded an air strike against what the rebels said was an orphanage packed with schoolgirls which the government say was a Tiger base, the Associated Press reported, noting that truce monitors said they saw 19 bodies, while the rebels said more than 60 died.

"These children are innocent victims of violence," said Ann M Veneman, executive director of UNICEF, the United Nations children’s fund, saying the students were attending a first-aid training programme. "We call on all parties to respect international humanitarian law and ensure children and the places where they live, study and play are protected from harm."

(c) Ecumenical News International