Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka says opening road to former war zone

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(Clarifies in third and fourth paragraph to show road was open during 2002-2004 peace process)

By Shihar Aneez

OMANTHAI, Sri Lanka, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka officially relaxed on Monday tight security on transport to and from its former northern war zone, although some travellers said restrictions remained in place.

The government had said at the weekend it was opening the main highway connecting the north to the rest of the island nation on Monday, a move likely to be welcomed ahead of a Jan. 26 presidential poll.

Except during a 2002-2004 truce that ultimately collapsed, the north-south A-9 road had been closed since 1990 as Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who fought for a separate state for the ethnic minority Tamils, controlled parts of it.

During the truce, the Tigers drew on the road as a revenue source, taxing vehicles using it. After that the northern Jaffna district was effectively cut off from road links with most of Sri Lanka until January this year.

The Tigers' control over much of northern Sri Lanka meant the military-controlled Jaffna peninsula and its namesake city were virtual islands, with goods coming only by boat or air.

Since the defeat of the LTTE in May after a 25-year war, the government had been relaxing various tight security measures it adapted to curb rebel activities, but some had remained in place.

The government said on the weekend it was fully opening the north-south road for private vehicles from Monday, eliminating time-consuming clearance from the Ministry of Defence.

But in Omanthai, 267 km (166 miles) away from Colombo, many private vans were in a queue on Monday for military checking, a process in effect since the road was opened for goods transport in July.

"I am disappointed," a man who identified himself as Thavan, visiting Jaffna for the first time in seven years, told Reuters at the entry point.

"The government announced as if the road is opened for all without any restrictions, but i have been waiting here for over an hour until the military take us as a convoy."

Another vehicle driver on condition of anonymity said the only change from Monday was the inclusion of private vans in military escorted convoys.

NEW OPPORTUNITIES, SECURITY

Others taking the road, including some bank officials and a lorry driver, said regardless of remaining restrictions, the gradual opening of the route was giving them new business opportunities.

Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told Reuters the army was continuing to play a role on the road.

"We are providing security," he said. "The demining process along the (sides) of the road is not completed yet."

Two political analysts said by easing restrictions on north-south traffic the government hoped to woo the votes of ethnic minority Tamils in the presidential race.

Incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa and his rival former army chief General Sarath Fonseka been trying to get important Tamil swing votes.

Tamils make up almost 12 percent of the Indian ocean island nation's population, and unlike past elections where the LTTE discouraged them from going to the polls, they could emerge as a key swing vote this time.

However, a member of the Chamber of Commerce in Jaffna, still under military control, said: "We still have to face a number of tight security measures."

"Vehicle from the south are not subjected to the same tight measures while Jaffna-based Tamils have to undergo several barriers in transporting goods." (Additional reporting by N. Parameswaran in Jaffna; Editing by Jerry Norton) (shihar.aneez@thomsonreuters.com; +94-773-763-577; Reuters Messaging; shihar.aneez.reuters.com@reuters.net))

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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