SURGING violence and a spate of killings of aid workers are stopping charities carrying out urgent humanitarian work in both government and rebel-held areas of Sri Lanka.
Twenty months after the tsunami in December 2004 brought the country a rush of charity from abroad, international aid agencies are being subjected to daily suspicion and hostility, as well as the deadly attacks.
Aid workers say they have been increasingly stymied in their efforts to reach areas hardest hit by civil war. In the eastern Ampara district earlier this year, Sri Lankan women working for foreign aid groups were singled out and warned to quit by Tamil Tiger rebels.
In the worst violence, 17 employees of an international aid agency were massacred this month in the eastern town of Muttur. Last May, a driver for the Norwegian Refugee Council was found dead 150 yards from a military checkpoint in northern Vavuniya, his body riddled with bullets. The killings remain unsolved.
A week after the driver was killed, grenades were lobbed at the local project offices of three aid groups in Muttur; one worker was wounded.
Earlier this month, a vehicle carrying members of the international Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, which was created under a ceasefire accord in 2002, was pelted with stones as it tried to advance to Muttur to look into the condition of civilians displaced by fighting.
The killing of 17 employees of Action Contre La Faim, or Action Against Hunger, and the Sri Lankan military's refusal to grant immediate access to the site to independent investigators drew pointed criticism from the monitoring mission.
"It's very unwise of the government to stop us from entering these areas," said the chief of the mission, Ulf Henricsson, a retired Swedish general. "To stop us is to prevent an inquiry, and why do that if you have nothing to hide?"
Henricsson said the government had denied access to the area on the grounds that fighting was under way between Sri Lankan forces and the Tamil Tigers - also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Eric Fort, the leader of the aid agency's work in the country, said 15 of his colleagues, all Sri Lankans, had been found shot in the head in their office.
Two others appeared to have been shot in the back, as though they might have been trying to escape their attackers. They were all dressed in T-shirts bearing the agency's name. The agency worked on tsunami reconstruction and provided water and sanitation services for people displaced by war.
The government has promised a "free and fair" inquiry into the killings, aided by forensic pathologists from Australia, but it has ruled out any involvement of the United Nations or the International Committee of the Red Cross in the investigations, as Fort's group had urged.
Last week, Mahinda Samarasinghe, the Sri Lankan minister of disaster management and human rights, said the government welcomed international relief workers but was compelled to restrict their movement for the sake of safety. "We can't have any number of aid workers running around in conflict areas," he said.
So even as military clashes have displaced tens of thousands in the north and the east, aid agencies cannot get to many areas where civilians are believed to be in greatest need.
The threats to aid workers come as Sri Lanka plunges headfirst into familiar bloodshed. The 2002 ceasefire accord had brought a halt to decades of war between the separatists, who are Tamils, and the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government. The tsunami brought hopes of peace in the face of shared tragedy.
But by late last year, after a tsunami aid-sharing deal fell apart and a new government was elected with the help of Sinhalese hard-liners, the ceasefire began to unravel. Assassinations and tit-for-tat attacks followed, bringing the death toll up to 800 in the first seven months of this year.
Late last month, what began as a fight over control of an irrigation channel in the east grew into what now looks like full-scale war, with clashes in the east, as well as a rebel advance to the strategic Jaffna peninsula in the north. At least 50,000 Sri Lankans have been displaced in the past three weeks, according to the United Nations refugee agency, although reliable estimates are difficult because of lack of a access.
Even by Sri Lankan standards, the past two weeks have brought reports of particularly gruesome incidents. In one, the government accused the LTTE, of having killed 100 Muslims who were fleeing the fighting. The International Committee of the Red Cross on Wednesday confirmed two dead in the area.
Earlier this week, the Sri Lankan Air Force bombed a former orphanage inside rebel territory, where teenage girls were undergoing first-aid training. At least 19 girls were killed, according to truce monitors. "It was a LTTE training camp; this was firmly established before the bombing," said Keheliya Rambukwella, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence spokesman. "The question of age of the cadres really doesn't arise." The monitoring mission and the UN children's agency said they had found no evidence of rebel installations there.
In the resumption of combat, Tamils who do not side with the rebels have been singled out. Last Saturday, the deputy chief of the government peace secretariat, Ketheshwaran Loganathan, was killed by an unidentified gunman near his home in suburban Colombo. His killing came exactly a year after the slaying of the foreign minister at the time, Lakshman Kadirgamar. The two were among the most prominent Sri Lankan Tamils in the government.