9th February  2003, Volume 9, Issue 30

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THE three service commanders, Army Commander Lionel Balagalle, Navy Chief Daya Sandagiri, Air Force Head Donald Perera and Police Inspector General T. E Anandaraja stand nonchalantly at attention as Woman Police Constable (WPC) Thanuja stands in for President Chandrika Kumaratunga at the final dress rehearsal for the Independence Day celebrations on February 3. The WPC hoisted the national flag, took the salute, and stood in for the commander in chief while the national anthem was played.

Photo by Sena Vidanagama


LTTE agrees to drop child recruitment

 

 

By Lasantha Wickrematunge in Berlin

 

The LTTE agreed to a complete cessation of recruitment of and recruitment campaigns aimed at persons below 18 years following discussions with the government at the fifth round of peace talks in Berlin.

 

The LTTE has taken action to release 350 children who had joined the organisation for reunification with their parents and guardians.

 

The government and the LTTE also decided to hold a meeting between them and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission to ensure that incidents similar to last week's off Delft do  not recur.

 

LTTE chief negotiator Dr Anton Balasingham denied that the LTTE was involved in the act of smuggling weapons. He said that the three Sea Tigers had committed suicide as an act of defiance after the Navy insisted  that they surrender. According to Balasingham, the Sea Tiger gun boat had come to the rescue of the trawler that had developed engine trouble. According to the LTTE, the trawler was engaged in fishing.

 

Prof G L Peiris  said that the government had raised the issue  and discussed mechanisms that would ensure that such incidents did not recur.

 

A joint statement issued by the Royal Norwegian Embassy said that both parties expressed concerns about the incident and their strong commitment to ensure that similar incidents do not reoccur. Last Friday's incident saw three Sea Tigers die after one of them exploded a suicide jacket.

 

The statement said that the meeting with the SLMM was to be held soon and both parties recognised the gravity of the incident.

 

The two sides also agreed to invite human rights envoy Ian Martin to draw up a human rights road map for human rights issues relating to the peace talks. The draft road map would be ready for discussions at the sixth round of talks in Japan scheduled between March 18 and 21.

 

The draft map will include recommendations on training LTTE cadres and government officials on human rights and human rights laws including police and prison authorities.

 

Both parties agreed that children have been the worst victims affected by the war between the government and the LTTE. UNICEF estimates that there are 900,000 children in the North East and most suffer from malnutrition, poor health care and education facilities and are threatened by landmines. The LTTE agreed to seek UNICEF help to draw up an action plan for children affected by the conflict.

 

The parties also reviewed the progress report on the work of the Sub-committee on Immediate Humanitarian and Rehabilitation Needs of the North East (SIHRN).  The concept papers approved at the previous meetings of the SIHRN on January 16 and 16 have been developed into proposals for concrete projects that can be approved and begun immediately. The joint statement said that the agreement on World Bank custodianship of the Northeast Reconstruction Fund is close to finalisation and will be signed within the next week.  It also said that implementation of the Action Plan for Accelerated Resettlement in the Jaffna district was ahead of schedule.

 

The joint statement said that the  report on the return of displaced Muslims from the North has been submitted for their consideration. The LTTE and the government also agreed to establish three committees one in each district in the Esatern Province to address land issues and other areas of concern.


 

 

Navy searches for weapons

 

By Frederica Jansz

 

Naval authorities yesterday used divers to investigate the wreck of the blown up LTTE trawler.  A high ranking officer of the Sri Lanka Navy who spoke in confidence to  The Sunday Leader Saturday said the Navy was  in the process of conducting diving operations in the waters off Iranaitivu.  The entire exercise  has been initiated he said, to locate further evidence and ascertain if the LTTE trawler was carrying more weapons than those  originally seen by international monitors.

 

'We are almost convinced the Sea Tigers were transporting more weapons  than those seen at  first glance by the SLMM monitors,' he said, adding it  is the first time the LTTE have been known to transport a 23mm anti  aircraft gun.  He explained this weapon is highly sophisticated and very large  in size. 

 

A 23mm anti air craft gun is 6.54 meters in length 2.25 meters in  height, 2.95 meters wide.  The weapon is capable of acquiring, tracking and engaging low-flying aircraft (as well as mobile ground targets while either in place or on  the move). The armament consists of four 23mm cannon with a maximum slant  range of 3,000 meters.  The Sea Tigers on Friday were also detected transporting the  dismantled gun together with 2 boxes of ammunition, 3 grenades and some other explosives including some communication equipment.


 

Government gets tough on LTTE taxes

 

Berlin: The government last week raised the issue of taxes with the LTTE during the fifth round of peace talks. Government delegation leader Prof G L Peiris and Defence Secretary Austin Fernando both spoke to the LTTE about taxes and raised concerns about taxes levied on the CWE. They told the LTTE delegates, that taxes were a clear violation of the MoU and if the taxing of goods destined to the CWE did not stop, the government would have to close down the branch.  LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham, however, told the government representatives that no government institutions were taxed. He thereafter informed LTTE political wing head S P Tamilchelvan to look into the matter and take action in consultation with the LTTE Finance Secretary. Meanwhile, a recent study by a private researcher revealed that the LTTE was earning Rs 2.34 billion through its domestic taxes. On the A9 highway, alone the study said that the Tigers were making Rs 5 million a day on taxes.

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Interntantional Centre for Ethnic Studies who conducted the study estimated that the Tigers were making an annual revenue of Rs 3 billion from its local tax and business activities. The research criticised the LTTE for not undertaking any development work with the revenue and said that the MoU had opened a gold mine to the Tigers.


Trawler incident: CBK blames govt.

By Frederica Jansz 

President Chandrika Kumaratunga on Friday (7),  blasted the government for allowing "a tragic incident to take place" at Iranaitivu, where three LTTE cadres blew themselves up with explosives when their trawler with weapons was detected by the Sri Lanka Navy.

Even as Norwegian facilitators in Berlin struggled to reach a compromise formula as the crisis situation in Sri Lanka's northern waters erupted hours before peace talks were to begin, the President chided the defence minister and the government, saying "it is about time that the government of Sri Lanka demonstrated serious interest for peace and ending the war in a durable manner."

The President's stern letter to Defence Minister Tilak Marapone was sent even as government negotiators and the LTTE in Berlin agreed with Norwegian facilitators that a press statement be issued reiterating that due to a breakdown in communication between the LTTE naval commander and its cadres, three of its crew members took their lives on Friday the 7th at Iranaitivu.

Kumaratunga meanwhile charged "if not for the 18-hour delay in taking action despite her instructions to the contrary the outcome may not have been so tragic."

Kumaratunga in her capacity as Commander in Chief of the armed forces had earlier ordered Navy Chief, Daya Sandagiri to seize the weapons on board the LTTE trawler and to release the Tiger cadres "in view of the ongoing negotiations between the government and the LTTE."

Before her orders could be carried out however, drama in the high seas unfolded when and the Tigers on board the vessel ordered the two Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) monitors to jump overboard before blowing themselves and the trawler to bits.

The President is of the view that although only confidence building measures have been undertaken in almost one year of negotiations since the signing of the ceasefire agreement, the LTTE has consistently violated the agreement raising serious concerns about their credibility in the current negotiations.

As the crisis  developed in Sri Lanka's northern waters hours before peace talks were to begin in Berlin, the navy detected the LTTE trawler carrying a 22mm anti aircraft barrel, two boxes of ammunition, an AK47 and three grenades hidden beneath the floorboards of the trawler.

The detection was made by two monitors of the SLMM who were later told to jump overboard into the ocean before the three cadres on board began to set fire to the trawler. One of the LTTE cadres had thereafter donned a suicide jacket and exploded the device killing himself and his two colleagues with him instantly.

Earlier in the week, navy and air force personnel were placed on high alert following intelligence information that a boat loaded with weapons was due to arrive in northern waters from India. The information however was leaked to the media and made public by Friday, February 7.

Senior navy and air force personnel have complained bitterly to Defence Minister Marapone that as a result of the leak to the press, it blew their cover in detecting the mystery boa


LTTE earns Rs. 2 bn in taxes annually 

The LTTE's tax revenue could be as high as Rs. 2.34 billion per year according to a recent study.

A paper by Muttukrisha Sarvananthan of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies suggests that the Tigers are amassing Rs. 3 billion per year through tax and other domestic revenue. "The opening of the A9 highway and officially undertaking political activities in government controlled areas of the north - east have provided them (the LTTE) a gold mine in terms of tax revenue," the paper titled 'What Impedes Economic Revival In The North East Province of Sri Lanka?' states.

Sarvananthan's findings also reveal that the LTTE is not spending any of the income on development projects and that the organisation has not changed its approach from the days of fighting a war.

The research that was based on 10 months of field work found that there was an exodus of people, especially from the Jaffna peninsula and a capital flight from the north - east. The LTTE is also accused of appropriating property without proper compensation.

Sarvananthan suggests that the LTTE has to undergo a major character change if the situation of the Jaffna populace is to improve.

"The predicament of the Jaffna people has not changed during the current peace process. Disturbingly, the people of Jaffna are faced with a situation of where one tyranny is replaced by another."

The paper recommends the dismantling of the High Security Zones as it impedes economic growth. Most of the blame for the sorry economic conditions in the north - east however, has been placed on the LTTE.


Motion against commissioner 

A motion will be presented in parliament tomorrow, February 10, seeking the removal of Commissioner, Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, Kingsley Wickremasuriya.

On Friday, nearly 70 members of parliament had signed a resolution calling for Wickremasuriya's removal. After the motion is passed in parliament, a parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) will be appointed to evaluate the conduct of Wickrem- asuriya and thereafter make a final decision. The PSC is entrusted with special powers to not only remove Wickremasuriya from his post, but also punish him for breaking the Official Secrets Act.

Wickremasuriya's conduct has come into question following charges made by Minister S. B. Dissanayake that Wickremasuriya leaked confidential information to President Kumaratunga regarding a complaint and subsequent investigation against Dissanayake at the commission.  Dissa- nayake is claiming a sum of Rs. 100 million from Wickremasuriya as a result.

Separately, Wickrema- singhe Arachchige Soma- ratne is seeking Rs. 10 million in damages from the commission for abruptly abolishing his post as OIC, Bribery Commission.


New twist in SEC insider dealing case

The insider dealing drama took a new turn last week when Michael Mack and Norman Gunawardene tool their case to court. They have petitioned the Court of Appeal to squash the decision by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to prosecute them.

The SEC on January 27 decided to institute legal action against its former chairman Mack and Gunewardene on the advice of the Attorney General.

The petitioners in two separate cases also asked court to issue a writ in the nature of prohibition and grant an interim order preventing the respondents from taking any steps to prosecute them.

Ironically, two of the respondents - Cubby Wijetunge and Hemaka Amarasuriya - had vociferously opposed any move to prosecute Mack and Gunewardene.

Wijetunge, a member of the SEC earlier claimed the two accused are innocent of the charges against them. He also referred to the AGs ruling as "most distressing."

Singer Chairman Amaras-uriya went so far as to resign from the commission, citing his disagreement with the findings of the investigators. He had also said it was tragic that the investigators probing the case had misrepresented financial statements, and ridiculed them by alleging they did not even know how to read a balance sheet properly.

The eight other respondents in the two petitions are the SEC, deputy governor of the Central Bank, deputy secretary to the Treasury, registrar of companies and SEC commission members A.D.B. Talwatte, Dr. Nihal Jinasena, G.C.B. Wijeyesinghe and Johnson Peiris.

The petitioners have basically argued that they sold their shares in Aitken Spence when it became evident that business tycoon Harry Jayawardene was attempting to edge them out of the company. They pointed out that it became clear that the major shareholders including Jayawardene did not want them re-elected.

Mack (a former chairman of Aitken Spence) and Gunewardene (a former director) said it was under such circumstances that they decided to sell their shares in the company.

They also pleaded that they were not in possession of any unpublished price sensitive information.

They further stated that "in any event at any time after the advent of this complaint, there was no material fluctuation in the price of the shares of Aitken Spence & Company Limited."

They also said in the petitions that they were never informed about the facts constituting the alleged wrongdoing, and no explanation was asked in this regard and there has been "a breach of the rules of natural justice."


Jayalath denies black flag welcome

Despite a denial by Rehabilitation Minister Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena that he not was met with a sea of black flags when he visited Jaffna recently following another rice scandal, it is confirmed that Jayawardena's handling of the peninsula initiated the protest campaign.

Sources revealed that the black flags were a show of disillusionment against all cabinet ministers of the UNF government and the fact that little effort is being made to rehabilitate the war ravaged peninsula. 

However, senior government sources in Jaffna who requested anonymity said the flags were initially put up to show discontent with Dr.   Jayawardena and thereafter continued to include all ministers of the UNF government as being totally ineffective.

Meanwhile Dr. Jayawardena's insistence that he personally had nothing to do with the bad quality rice sent to Jaffna recently, sources said, does not carry weight as the Rehabilitation and Refugees Ministry is responsible to ensure that dry rations sent to the north are of standard quality. Dr.   Jayawardena they say, has unfortunately failed not once but twice in this regard.

At a special meeting with  Jaffna Government Agent, Selliah Pathmanathan  on February 7, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had queried as to why rice was being imported from India to be sent to Jaffna when there are bumper stocks available within Sri Lanka.


British MP due next month

British External Development Minister, Clair Short is due to visit Sri Lanka on March 5 and 6 on a special invitation made by the Sri Lanka government.

Enroute to Berlin last week, Minister Milinda Moragoda is reported to have met with   Short.  The British Minister had reportedly said that Britain will participate in the aid conference scheduled to be held in Japan in June.


No ship in the east - Military

Amidst newspaper reports that a ship came close to Sri Lankan territorial waters in the east loaded with weapons, the military denied any such detection.

Media spokesman of the Sri Lanka Army, Brigadier Sarath Karunaratne said that there were no confirmed reports about the sighting of the ship.

When asked about the reports, he said that according to the information he had, there was no confirmation about the incident and he did not have any information to give to the media.

Even naval authorities told The Sunday Leader that there were no officially confirmed reports about this ship, that was reported to have been sighted east of Mullaitivu.

Senerath Leeniyagolla in charge of information at the Defence Ministry said that even the Ministry had not received confirmed reports of this mysterious.

The news reports said that following the sighting of the vessel several ships and air force craft were deployed to further investigate.  The information about the ship was received from defence authorities after information from the Indian coast guard, according to the reports.

The military spokesperson said that he had not received any reports of a suspect ship in the eastern waters.

However, there was confirmed engagement west of Jaffna that had ended in three LTTE suicides.


Bogus colonel swindles millions

By Risidra Mendis

An imposter claiming to be an army officer has swindled leading trading companies of millions of rupees.

Nawlage Rienzie Cooray is alleged to have posed as a colonel in the army and purchased electrical goods to the value of Rs 319,000 on November 27, 2002 and Rs. 500,000 on December 29, 2002 from a company in Colombo 2.

Both purchases were made on behalf of the Sri Lanka Army. The purchase order amounting to Rs. 319,000 was signed by a Colonel, D.R. Rodrigo and a Brigadier, V. K.  Sumanasekera. Cooray has used the same method to trick other companies as well.

However, when The Sunday Leader contacted army media spokesman Brigadier Sarath Karunaratne he said a colonel and a brigadier by these names were not enlisted in the army. 

The brigadier further said Cooray had applied for recruitment to join the army. However he wasn't drafted in.

Meanwhile on January 8, 2003 Cooray had sent a letter to the manager of the company requesting time to pay the cash, due to a heavy financial difficulty. Cooray had further requested the manager to give him time till January 17, 2003 to settle the total payment.

However, when Cooray requested another order for Rs 100,000 on January 7, 2003 the manager on suspicion called up the bank. Having found out that there was no such account as claimed by Cooray, the manager came downstairs only to find Cooray gone.

"We have made an entry at the Fraud Bureau, the CID and the police but the man is yet to be traced," the manager said.


French minister to visit Jaffna

French Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Renaud Muselier will arrive in the island today on a four day visit.

The visit will be the first by a French cabinet minister since  1996.

According to the Press and Information Service at the French Embassy, the visit is following an invitation by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The French Minister will visit Jaffna during his stay. However, the embassy was unable to confirm if the Minister will be meeting any members of the LTTE.

Minister Muselier will also donate French books to the Jaffna Library. The Minister will inaugurate a project for the French NGO, Caritas, which is helping in the resettlement of displaced persons. He will also visit a water treatment plant in Anuradhapura.


ILO workshops for garment sector

The Ministry of Enterprise Development, Industrial Policy and Investment Promotion together with the International Labour Organi-sation (ILO) is launching a series of consultation workshops with the apparel industry on how to improve the productivity and competitiveness of the SMEs and to secure and further increase employment opportunities in the sub-sector beyond the expiry of the Multi-Fiber Agreement in end 2004.

The local apparel industry will face stiff world market competition after the abolition of the quota system under the Multi Fiber Agreement. Sri Lanka is expected to face greater competition, particularly from low-cost countries such as Bangladesh, China and Vietnam.

Production in local apparel SME is characterised by high labour intensity and low capital intensity.  As a result, the local apparel industry stands to lose its share in the lucrative export markets.


  • Murder of Yala ranger  

Main suspect nabbed

By Risidra Mendis 

The main suspect in the killing of wildlife ranger M. K. C. Kumarasinghe was arrested by the Hambantota Police on February 6. Police said that according to evidence received, the suspect 'Sudda' was the one who pulled the trigger.

According to Director, Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWC), H. S. B. C. Herath, when a team of wildlife officials went to the location where Kumarasinghe was shot, they found a diary that contained telephone numbers of police stations in the country.

While some camouflaged suits and T56 bullets were also found at the location, the diary is believed to be that of the killer.   

The seven member wildlife team which visited the scene of the crime the day after the murder was successful in collecting evidence that led to the suspect's arrest. "Having spoken to the villagers in the area, the information was reported to the Hambantota ASP," Herath said.

According to Herath, the DWC inquiry was to be completed by yesterday. However, based on the evidence available, the Environment Ministry Secretary has sent a letter to the IGP requesting for an independent inquiry by the CID. The Sunday Leader learns that while a copy of the diary will be retained at the DWC, the original will be sent to the CID for further investigation.

Poaching and ganja cultivations within the Yala National Park was kept under control between 1995 - 1998 when the army was entrusted security. The army was moved into the park as the threat of LTTE infiltration kept increasing.

LTTE destroyed park bungalows, abducted tourists and wildlife staff and the park at one time had to be closed. However, with the ceasefire agreement and the lapse of emergency in the country the army was removed on August 10, 2002.

There are still around 300 troops presently within the park premises. However, it is not known if the army can get involved in raids conducted by wildlife officers.

Meanwhile, Environment and Natural Resources Minister, Rukman Senanayake has instructed Herath to take whatever measures required to bring the culprits to book. "Irrespective of whether the culprits are politicians, police officers or influential people of the area, if they are proven guilty nothing will stop us from taking the necessary action," Herath said. 

The DWC having borne the full cost of Kumarasinghe's funeral, will hand over Rs. 250,000 as part of an insurance scheme to his family. "I'm not saying that this payment is a way of getting out of the present situation," Herath said.


Controversies galore at Rajarata University 

By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema 

The University Grants Commission (UGC) is looking in to allegations about nongraduates following the Postgraduate Diploma in Management (PDM) conducted by the Rajarata University.

It is alleged that the university has enrolled non-graduates for this course for some time. Although the committee investigating the matter has still not presented a final verdict, the university continues to conduct the said diploma course.

A committee was first appointed to look in to the matter about six months ago and since  there was no proper outcome, another committee was appointed about two months ago to further investigate the matter. So far, even the second committee has failed to present its final verdict.

This one-year course, which started in 2000, is currently conducting classes for its third batch, but as a final verdict has still not been released, students are badly affected as their exam results have still not been released.

Secretary, Tertiary Education Ministry, Saman Ediriweera told The Sunday Leader that the Ministry does not have any information about the course's current position or about the investigating committee's position as the matter has been completely handed over to the UGC.

Apart from the PDM, the Tertiary Education Ministry has also informed the UGC to look in to allegations of irregular appointments being made to the Agriculture Faculty of the Rajarata University. It is reported that in October 2002, Dean of the Agriculture Faculty of the University had requested deans and department heads of other universities to send nominations for a temporary assistant lecturer for the university's Agriculture Department. Unlike other times when temporary posts are advertised in the newspapers with selections made by a committee consisting of the vice chancellor, dean, head of departments and a representative of the council, this time round, selections have been allegedly made without any consideration to the normal procedure. While some graduates from the Ruhuna University were not even called for interviews conducted by a panel consisting of the dean, a head of a department and a probationary lecturer, two persons not attached to any university have been selected at the interviews held on December 4, 2002.

According to Ediriweera, this issue too has been handed over to the UGC under the directions of Tertiary Education Minister Kabir Hashim.

Meanwhile, the vice chancellor of the university has decided not to occupy his official residence, but to get a new house on rent. The registrar and several other officials from the university have also decided to occupy a house on rent without occupying their official quarters. It is alleged that the rent of this house is to be paid by the Rajarata University.

When The Sunday Leader contacted the registrar of the university, he first thought that the journalist was calling from the Bribery Commission and later on, denied the allegation about getting a house on rent. He then said that it is the vice chancellor that should speak on the matter. Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Vice Chancellor, K. Wijerathna said that bids for the vice chancellor's residence was opened on January 31 after advertising in the newspapers. He went on to explain that the final decision on the house will be made at the university's council meeting which is scheduled for February 21. However, as for the house for the registrar, Wijerathna said that they will rent a house, but nothing has yet been finalised on the matter and that the occupants of the house will pay the rent and not the university.

The Sunday Leader's attempts to contact Chairman, UGC, Prof. Ranjith Mendis were not successful.


Telecommunication operators oppose liberalisation 

The government's policy decision to completely liberalise international communication facilities with minimal entry barriers has run into opposition from six incumbent telecommunication operators, who according to sources are contemplating legal action to stall the liberalisation.

According to sources, these operators face the threat of stronger competition and disruption of oligarchic structures through the proposed liberalisation.

Secretary, Ministry of Mass Communications, Kumar Abeysinghe told a telecom operators' meeting last week that the government's decision to fully liberalise international communications is 'non negotiable.'

He also stressed that it has been done to spur further investment, socio economic development, instill order in the telecom sector and bring benefits to consumers.

A Consultant to the Ministry of Policy Development and Implementation, Luxman Siriwardene remarked during this meeting that the telecom operators should not underestimate the government's will.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe recently overruled a strong lobby to restrict the international gateway liberalisation to the existing operators.

Representatives from the six telecom companies - Sri Lanka Telecom, Suntel, Dialog, Celltel, Mobitel and Lanka Bell observed at the meeting held at the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRC) that they are unhappy with several changes made to the original recommendations proposed by the foreign consultants on Gateway Licensing and Interconnection.

The foreign consultants earlier came under heavy criticism by three other telecom operators - Electroteks, Lanka Com and Lanka Internet for having provided Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) with advice, including an affidavit for a court case on their previous dispute on their international gateway monopoly.

A Consultant to the Ministry of Policy Development and Implementation, Prof. Rohan Samarajeewa explained at the meeting the reasons that led to the foreign consultants revising their recommendations. This included comments received as a result of their public consultations and the recent introduction of an international calling card named 'Sigiriya Card' by SLT in the UK.

It was pointed out that a levy of US$ 0.12 on each international incoming call minute as proposed earlier would not be economically sustainable when a minute on the Sigiriya card amounts to Rs. 19 in the retail market.

The rate presently proposed by the government and opposed by the six operators is US$ 0.06 per minute.

According to sources, interconnection links which have been denied to some licensed telecom operators despite government directives are offered for approximately Rs. 1 million by officials in some of the fixed and cellular telecom operators.

A per minute charge of approximately Rs. 3 is payable on each international incoming call for illegal bypass to such officials. A leading cellular company is alleged to have imported an international gateway through Singapore.

According to customers of this company, they receive international calls on their cellular phones displaying this company's network code of 07x, confirming illegal bypass by this company.

According to analysts, there are about 24 million minutes of international incoming calls amounting to about 45% of the total, that are terminated through illegal means on which the government loses millions in revenue. These analysts point out that several of the illegal bypass operators have expressed a desire to obtain a license under the presently proposed structure.

This is likely to increase government revenue directly by at least Rs. 500 million a month. The government proposes to re-channel most of such revenue to fund network extension to rural areas, informed sources said.


AIDS window in blood transfusions 

By Hemamala Wickramage 

Screening methods at the National Blood Transfusion Service (NBTS) leave an uncomfortable three-week window period where HIV/AIDS cases cannot be detected. NBTS's screening methods cannot detect HIV positive cases if the infection has taken place three weeks prior to the date of giving blood.

According to NBTS officials there is a testing method currently being developed in the United States, which can detect HIV viruses in blood donor samples directly, by detecting its genetic material. "The test is known as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), however, even in the USA it is still not considered as a fully developed method of testing and cost wise for Sri Lanka this type of testing would not be viable," said the officials.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader NBTS officials said, "there is usually a period of several weeks in which newly infected people have not yet produced enough HIV antibodies to be detected. Due to blood donations from people who are in this window period, infection could result."

NBTS officials further said that although current tests available at NBTS detect antibodies to the AIDS viruses, unfortunately for a brief time after infection, people make too few antibodies for these tests to detect them. As a result, their blood passes all the screening tests, even though it can transmit HIV.

The "window period" for HIV-1 lasts about three to four weeks. And donated blood cannot be tested after the initial screenings.

Even though past yearly records suggest that there had only been one or two HIV positive blood samples detected at the NBTS screenings, according to interviews The Sunday Leader had with Blood Bank officials, there had been more than two dozen such cases detected within the last year. NBTS officials say that the figure however includes unconfirmed samples, therefore the number of actual HIV positive samples could be less. "These numbers were recorded at the initial screenings," they said, adding that when compared to other years their latest records show a higher number.

According to NBTS's officials, generally there are two types of testing for the HIV/AIDS infection in donor samples. "The two tests are antigen testing and antibody testing. While antibody testing can measure the body's immune response to the presence of a virus, antigen testing detects the virus itself," said the NBTS officials. However, currently, NBTS carries out only antibody testing and the officials said that "pure antigen testing are far more expensive compared to the other test type."

NBTS's general questionnaire for prospective blood donors does not include a specific detailed question on the three-week window period. The absence of a specific question which deals with the three week high risk window period, especially in the backdrop of the defects in detection is surprising. The availability of such a question no doubt could assist in minimising the risk.

The questionnaire queries prospective donors on homosexual contacts while no reference is made to unprotected heterosexual contact, even though such contact is considered to carry a similar risk of HIV transmission as homosexual activities.

NBTS's blood donation procedure for prospective blood donors include the filling of the questionnaire followed by a confidential interview with a medical officer. "If at interview stage we are aware of a 'high risk donation' the donation process is immediately stopped and the donor is deferred at that point," said NBTS officials. However, they admitted that they solely rely on the donors' answers to the given questionnaire and their replies at the interview.

"That is why the NBTS prefers the blood from regular non-remunerated voluntary donors than blood from replacement donors. Replacement donors are people who donate blood due to pressure from friends or relatives who are in need of blood due to an impending surgery," said NBTS officials.

Despite assurances by NBTS officials on the supply of risk free blood, HIV virus' window period poses a much higher risk than what the public is currently aware of.

At least one case where transmission of contaminated blood resulting in a patient's infection has been reported. Dr. Kamalika Abeyratne has been the unfortunate victim of human error when she was infected with the HIV virus through blood transfusion. Ironically however, speaking to The Sunday Leader her husband, Dr. Michael Abeyratne said that he is 100% sure of the safety of NBTS's blood supply. The blood that was given to Dr. Abeyratne had come from a suburban Colombo hospital, which was not attached to the NBTS blood supply network at the time.

According to NBTS officials, there are 60 regional blood banks under their blood supply. Regional blood banks around the country are hospital based and are attached to teaching hospitals, general hospitals, base hospitals and some of the district hospitals where theatre facilities are available. NBTS is the sole supplier of blood to all state hospitals and some of the private hospitals, which are registered under the Health Ministry for supply of blood and blood products.

Apart from HIV/AIDS, the NBTS tests donated blood for a variety of blood-borne diseases. They test each unit of blood for Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, Malaria and also the sexually transmitted Syphilis.

According to NBTS officials, in their donor sample testings, they come across around 25-30 confirmed positive cases of these blood-borne diseases.

According to NBTS official data, each year they receive 160,000 units of 450-ml packets of blood from donors. The number of blood transfusions carried out by the NBTS for the year 2001 was 156,000.

When The Sunday Leader asked NBTS officials whether they take responsibility if and when a deadly disease like HIV/AIDS is transmitted through a NBTS blood transfusion, they replied in the negative.

"Even if error proof screening tests were available for every transmittable disease, transfusion would still not be 100% safe. No medical procedure ever is. There is always the possibility of an error," said the officials. However, they said the NBTS takes all the necessary care in blood donation and transfusion procedure and NBTS trained staff can be totally relied upon for a safe transfusion.

"The remote risk of a serious infection of blood-borne diseases is ever present, but for patients who need blood transfusions, the risk of transfusion associated diseases is far less than the risk of dying or becoming more seriously ill without a transfusion," added the NBTS officials.


Lanka will seek UN assistance in case of another Gulf War

By Shezna Shums 

Sri Lanka will seek the help of the United Nations (UN) to help evacuate Sri Lankan migrant workers in the gulf in the event of a war.

However, UN Media Spokesperson in Colombo, Mohan Samaranayake told The Sunday Leader that any United Nations intervention would have to be decided at its headquarters in New York.

Samaranayake further stated that in the event of such a situation, the UN has its own contingency plan which will be handled by the headquarters.

Despite claims that plans are already in place to evacuate 500,000 Sri Lankans working in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait, Chairman, Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau (SLFEB), Susantha Fernando said that they were planning to contact the UN some time last week for their help.

Beyond the SLFEB's plans to contact the UN, he did not elaborate further.

Fernando stated that the workers in the countries bodering Iraq - Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait are the ones at risk. These workers are mostly domestic aides and shelters will be provided for them to ensure their safety.

"If the need arises for repatriation, the bureau will seek assistance from the UN and other international agencies," he said.

The Chairman also pointed out that another problem the SLFEB is facing at the moment is the increasing number of phone calls received by the bureau by families of migrant workers fearing the safety of their  loved ones in the Middle East.

However, according to Co-ordinating Secretary (Information), Employment and Labour Ministry, Lal Kumara there are three steps in place in case war breaks out between the US and Iraq. If war breaks out between the US and Iraq, the Sri Lankan embassies will take in the workers and keep them in safe houses.

Later, if this plan is inadequate, the workers will be transferred to other countries which have not been affected by the war. The workers will be transported by road as they will not have to pay any air fare then. This will be done with the assistance of the Red Cross and they have already been contacted by the Sri Lankan embassies.

As the last resort, the Sri Lankans will be brought back home.

According to local MPs who have toured the Middle East recently, the situation of some of the embassies in the Gulf is not that homely and the safe houses too are in a bad condition.

Human Rights Lawyer and member of Forum For Human Dignity, Maheswary Velauthan said that there have been many reports of ill treatment of these workers by the Sri Lankan officials at the safe houses.

Lal Kumara said that according to statistics there are more than 800,000 Sri Lankans working in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia having 350,000 workers, Kuwait 140,000 workers, 80,000 workers in Lebanon, Jordan 30,000 workers, Bahrain 20,000 workers and Qatar 10,000 workers.

According to the Ministry  there is no official figure on the number of workers in Iraq. However, unofficially there are about 1,000 workers in Iraq and the Ministry stated that they will be given assistance if war breaks out.

Lal Kumara also added that during the last Gulf War in 1991, the country's national carrier, AirLanka, had cancelled flights to Iraq.

This time round, if the workers are to be sent back to Sri Lanka, according to international laws the Red Cross can seek the assistance from foreign governments to send these workers back.

Suraj Dandeniya of the Association of Foreign Employment Agencies said that this time, there is a fundamental difference in the war when compared to last time.

"The last Gulf War broke out when Iraq invaded Kuwait and some of the foreign workers were abandoned while some were repatriated. However, this time, the US is attacking Iraq and there are only a very few people there. So it is very difficult to see why Sri Lankans abroad should panic."

Speaking to some of the workers who were in the Gulf during the last war, Divaina Photographer D. Banduwardena said he was working in Saudi Arabia for the Arabian Sun when the war broke out and since he was in a private firm, they offered him an air ticket to any country and he had chosen France.

"They couldn't send us to Sri Lanka direct because AirLanka had cancelled their flights to Iraq and we would have to go to Dubai to come here."

Since he was in a private firm, they provided the ticket and according to him, he knew of about 10 to 15 people who were sent back by the Sri Lankan Embassy.

There were other people from different nations, but they went back to their own countries as their airlines operated in Iraq. But it was only the Sri Lankans who couldn't get back to their country.

The Sunday Leader photographer, Asoka Fernando was also in Saudi Arabia - Taif, Riyadh at the time of the last war.

Fernando said that he worked as an irrigation worker in the Saudi Logistics and Transports Department and when the war was on he didn't come down to Sri Lanka because the area he was in was not affected that much. But, they did hear the first bombs that came down.

"We were also given gas masks to wear in case there was an emergency and the rooms and doors in the building were sealed with rubber at the edges to make them airtight in case toxic gases were being put out," he said.

"On TV they showed us that underground bunkers were ready in case of a situation and showed us what to do at that time," he explained.

According to Fernando, apart from these, they carried on with their regular work and had 24-hour shifts instead of the usual eight-hour shifts. "We were prepared for an emergency at any time," he said.

Fernando went on to say that foreign job opportunities were not slashed because of the problem and since warnings were given on TV on the places being attacked, people avoided going to these places and life went on as usual.

However, when asked the role played by the Sri Lankan embassy in their welfare, he said that they were not contacted at all by the embassy and didn't even know where the embassy was. 

 

 

 

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