BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka – A feared militia on Sri Lanka's volatile eastern coast has abducted hundreds of men and boys — some as young as 12 — to fight in the country's civil war, with the government's consent, relatives and aid workers said.
The K-faction broke away from the main Tamil Tiger rebels, whom they now fight for control over parts of eastern Sri Lanka. The militia takes its forced recruits to thatch-roofed bases near army compounds where they are used as laborers or taught to use weapons, witnesses, relatives and aid workers told The Associated Press in recent interviews.
The government denies cooperating with K-faction. But many people say Sri Lanka's army and the militia clearly work together, manning joint checkpoints where vans carrying abducted youths are allowed through.
By allowing K-faction to operate, the government has gained a new ally against a common enemy, said Robert Karniol, Asia Pacific bureau chief for Jane's Defense Weekly.
"The Tamil Tigers are a serious threat to the government and anything that weakens or distracts from that is advantageous to Colombo," Karniol said.
Named for its commander, who goes by the nom de guerre "Karuna," the faction has added a new factor to Sri Lanka's civil war, which began in 1983 and has savaged the nation. The faction is demanding a role in peace talks with the government, complicating efforts by foreign mediators to revive negotiations.
Renewed fighting this year has killed more than 1,000 people on this island off southern India, essentially shattering a 2002 cease-fire.
The Karuna faction split from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2004, with Karuna saying the larger group didn't defend the interests of the country's eastern Tamils. The faction has since built up a strong military presence in the island's east.
Hundreds of Karuna fighters terrorize the district of Batticaloa, the scene of a rash of abductions since March, residents said.
The exact number of disappearances is unknown because so many go unreported, but officials from several aid organizations estimate at least 300 people have been seized by Karuna's men this year.
"It has definitely been hundreds and it might not be all of them," said Bjorn Kjelsaas of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, established by Nordic countries to oversee the 2002 cease-fire.
Last month, the government insisted it was "very concerned" about the abductions and appointed a judge to investigate.
"We don't know about his (Karuna's) whereabouts. We have been right throughout denying that we are involved with them," said national security spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella.
But Karuna fighters, mostly dressed in civilian clothing, work alongside police and army officials at roadblocks, according to a high-ranking local official and aid workers. Because of violence in the area — unexplained killings happen nearly every day — only a handful of people were willing to be named.
A leader of the K-faction's political wing, E. Prethip, told the AP that the group's members are "volunteers."
He blamed the Tamil Tigers for committing atrocities in Karuna's name, and said the breakaway faction was armed only in self-defense.
"They carry out ambushes, loot houses, kill civilians. They kidnap the children and they say it was done by Karuna," Prethip said in his office, where children served visitors drinks.
"Our military does not cooperate with the Sri Lankan army, but we're not enemies either," he said, sitting in front of a bookcase filled with children's books.
The disappearances have become so common that almost every family around Batticaloa has lost a son, or knows someone who has, residents said. A teacher said his 10th grade high school class had almost no boys left.
Scores of boys — sometimes dozens at once — have been rounded up at home, Hindu temples, schools or by the side of the road, spirited away in white vans, according to witnesses and confidential case files submitted to Sri Lankan prosecutors and the Ministry for Human Rights and obtained by the AP.
In the most recent known case, two dozen youngsters were taken from a single village Sept. 24, said a human rights activist who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her life.
In a desperate attempt to protect their children, many families have sent their sons to safe houses, a local resident said.
Some K-faction recruits receive wages, normally around $60 a month, with two-thirds generally going to the family. Relatives are sometimes allowed to visit the camps, often in exchange for not going to authorities, aid workers said.
"The communities seem to know who is taking their children and they live in fear and are in need of protection," said Marcel Smits, head of the aid group Nonviolent Peaceforce Sri Lanka.
Parents who visited the camps said their children were training to fight the Tigers, Smits said.
One couple told the AP their 16-year-old son was taken by a neighbor eight months ago and has not been seen again. The parents said they were too scared to go to the police, choosing to suffer silently while protecting the three boys they still have.
"We didn't try to go after him and don't know where he is," said the father, as his wife huddled in a corner, staring blankly into the glow of an oil lamp. "We just want to have an ordinary life."