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COLOMBO: Chandradevi, a resident of Puttalam, around 100km north of Colombo, anxiously sits in a small office located in a busy, narrow street in Pettah, the bazaar area of the capital. The office, dedicated to taking complaints of abduction allegations is that of a Tamil parliamentarian, convener of the Civil Monitoring Commission formed last year to monitor the rise of abductions and murders.

It has been one year since Chandradevi’s aunt and her cousin, former residents of the war battered northern Jaffna district ‘disappeared’ from their residence in Puttalam, a predominantly Muslim town where Tamils are a minority.

“My aunt Nithyalakshmi Sivapadam, who runs a communication centre in Puttalam, was arrested last year by the police on suspicion of aiding the LTTE. She was produced in court and released on bail, on the condition that she should show up at the nearest police station every Sunday. But a day before the next court hearing, she and her son went missing. Ever since then we have been trying to locate them,” Chandradevi, one of nearly 100 Tamils crammed into the office, waiting for their turn to get their grievances recorded, told Dawn.

“She did not know where to go to in order to seek help. Since there are no Tamil politicians representing the Puttalam district, she and her husband came to us,” explains Mujahid, the secretary of a Muslim minister in Puttalam who had been assigned the task of bringing the woman to Colombo to seek assistance in finding her missing relatives.

“Some never give up hope. It’s over a year now since her aunt and cousin disappeared but she still hopes of finding them — alive,” he adds. Mujahid’s last visit to Colombo was three months ago, to get information about a Muslim businessman in Puttalam who had been bundled into a white van by unknown gunmen. The businessman has not been heard of since.

Although Chandradevi still expects to find her relatives alive, 67-year-old Maheswari is not so hopeful.

Mahesawri’s son, 39-year-old Sunendra Punyamoorthy, disappeared on April 20 as he was cycling from her residence to his own in Wellawatte, a chiefly Tamil populated Colombo suburb.

“His house is a few yards away from mine. He used to come to my residence for his meals and that night he had his dinner and left for his house at around 10pm. It was the last time I saw him. Later, his neighbours told us that he was taken away in a white van, as he neared his house, by men who claimed to be police. But when we went to the police to inquire they told us that they had not taken him in,” says Maheswari, breaking down.

White vans have become the dreaded symbol of death.

The Civil Monitoring Commission has recorded around 150 abduction allegations but human rights sources claim the numbers of disappearances and murders run into thousands but go unreported, especially in the north and east.

“There are two types of abductions. There are abductions that are carried out for ransoms and those who are taken away are rich businessmen. Most of them so far are Colombo Tamil businessmen of north-eastern (Jaffna) origin and Indian origin. Now Muslims and Sinhalese businessmen too are being abducted for ransom. But abduction for ransom is only a small part of the issue. The larger part is political. What we have had steadily from last year is the politically and militarily motivated abductions of Tamils,” alleges Mano Ganesan, Tamil parliamentarian for the Colombo district and convener of the Civil Monitoring Commission.

He says that a fair number of what he describes as ‘political abductions’ are carried out in the north-east region as well as in Colombo and its suburbs. “People simply disappear in the high security zones of Colombo. Rarely are they found alive,” claims Ganesan.

Despite being surrounded by bodyguards provided by the government, Ganesan says he lives in danger. In November last year Nadarajah Raviraj, a member of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a vociferous critic of the government, was shot dead in the capital by unidentified gunmen.

The international truce monitors, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), has in a recent situation report accused the army or police of being involved in some of the abductions, apart from those carried out by the LTTE breakaway faction and the LTTE mainstream.

“Perpetrators are most often suspected to be members of the TMVP or the LTTE, although sometimes it is the army or police who are accused of abductions,” the SLMM report said, referring to the political party of ex-LTTE militant Karuna.

The Mahinda Rajapakse administration, under fire by the international community to remedy the situation, until recently denied the occurrence of abductions.

But the government defence spokesman last week said over 10 persons, including members of the police and an ex-air force officer, had been arrested on charges of engineering an abduction-for-ransom racket.