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Sri Lanka tightens grip on foreign aid workers

[AFP, Wednesday, 10 November 2010 13:57 No Comment]

The International Committee of the Red Cross has said it is not subject to the new rules Sri Lanka’s government said Wednesday it had ordered foreign and local aid workers to register with the defence ministry in a move to put them under greater state control.

The government information department said there were 250 international and some 1,000 domestic aid agencies working in Sri Lanka, which would now have to obtain approval from the defence ministry following a change in the law.

It added that the ministry — which is headed by the president’s brother — will also process foreign aid workers’ visa applications which must be made through the newly established National Secretariat for NGOs.

Sri Lankan authorities have long been suspicious of international and local non-government agencies, which were sometimes seen as sympathising with the rebel Tamil Tigers during the country’s 37-year civil war.

The conflict ended in May last year when the rebels were wiped out in a military campaign that has since been dogged by allegations of war crimes, which the government denies.

Independent media and aid groups have been kept out of the conflict zone in the north and east of the country.

The National Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organisation said any aid agency directly delivering services to the people must register in future.

"If any organisation wants to go directly to the beneficiaries without going through a government organisation, then they must register with us," the secretariat’s director, Douglas Nanayakkara, told AFP.

He said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was also required to register, but the Geneva-based humanitarian agency said it was not subject to the new rules because it was not an NGO.

The ICRC "is an impartial, neutral and independent organisation whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict," an ICRC spokesperson told AFP.

The ICRC said on its website that it had been reviewing its operations and presence in Sri Lanka following the end of fighting in May last year.

Four ICRC offices in the island’s former conflict zone of the east were closed this year.

The ICRC said its activities carried out from offices in the northern Vavuniya and north-western Mannar were put on hold "pending further clarification and agreement with the government."

A United Nations spokesman in Colombo, Mohan Samaranayake, said the new rules did not apply to UN agencies either.

Another NGO which did not want to be identified said they were still studying the implications of the government’s new rules.

The US and the UN have led international calls for Sri Lanka to allow relief agencies unhindered access to thousands of war-affected civilians who are struggling to rebuild their livelihoods.

The battle-scarred nation is ruled by all-powerful President Mahinda Rajapakse, whose family members hold key positions in the government. His brother, Gotabhaya, is the defence secretary.

In July, angry protests led by a government minister outside the compound of the United Nations in Colombo persuaded the world body to shut its office and recall its representative.

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