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Suspected Sri Lankan Role in Gandhi Killing Scares Refugees

May 30, 1991

MUTHUKADU, India (AP) _ The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi has brought an edge of fear to the poverty-stricken lives of the tens of thousands of refugees who fled the ferocious civil war in Sri Lanka.

Many recall the vicious anti-Sikh riots across northern India after the former prime minister’s mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was slain by two of her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.

They also fear being sent back to the ethnic war in their homeland.

A Sri Lankan rebel group is suspected of organizing the May 21 bombing death of Rajiv Gandhi not far from this village.

Investigators say the suicide assassin had the features of a Sri Lankan Tamil. Some theorize she lived in one of the teeming refugee camps.

Little violence has been aimed at the 200,000 Tamil refugees in India, but some Gandhi supporters have begun a campaign to deport them.

″We are trapped,″ said David Christy, a 47-year-old Tamil at the refugee camp in Muthukadu, 21 miles south of Madras, capital of Tamil Nadu state.

″We can’t go back to a place where even a group of four civilians is bombed by the air force. And God knows what will happen here.″

Most refugees live in Tamil Nadu, home to India’s own 60 million Tamils and an hour’s sail from Sri Lanka. The island nation’s Tamils first migrated from India centuries ago.

Refugees outgrew a two-story cyclone shelter that was their first home at Muthukadu village, and thatched-roof huts house the latecomers. Five police with rifles guard the camp.

″If we are sent back, no man under 40 will live,″ said Srinivasan Devaraj, a 22-year-old in a T-shirt and a white sarong. ″Either the army will get us or the Tigers will.″

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a Sri Lankan rebel militia, has attacked Tamils as well as the Sri Lankan army. In northern Sri Lanka, residents say young men must join the Tigers under threat of death.

Sri Lanka’s army, dominated by the majority Sinhalese, regularly bombs Tiger hideouts. Many guerrilla posts are in towns, so civilians often become targets.

″We are willing to go back,″ said Pushpam Turairajasingham, a slim woman with angry, flashing eyes. ″But will you guarantee our safety?″

The Tigers emerged as prime suspects in the Gandhi killing but denied responsibility. One motive could be Gandhi’s ordering Indian troops into Sri Lanka in 1987 to enforce a cease-fire between rebels and army.

Most militias accepted the peace, but the Tigers fought a 2 1/2 -year battle with Indian troops that ended only after V.P. Singh, who succeeded Gandhi as prime minister, ordered the soldiers home.

″Almost everyone in the camps is a Tiger sympathizer, either out of admiration or out of fear,″ political analyst Cho Ramaswamy said. ″The demand for their deportation is extreme, but a natural reaction.″

Ramaswamy, editor of the satirical magazine Tughlak, said the only solution is to identify armed militants hiding among the refugees, deport them, and keep the rest strictly within the camps.

Many residents around Madras say the Tigers, better off than the dirt-poor refugees, already have escaped the camps by renting houses in city suburbs.

The refugees get a twice-monthly allowance of about $3 per adult. Some work in construction, but most are jobless, deprived of the land and fishing boats that provided a living back home.

Ramaswamy said the Tigers have used money to gain power in Tamil Nadu.

″They bought contacts in the police and the bureaucracy,″ he said. ″... Some people say political parties also accept money from them.″

The federal government dismissed the Tamil Nadu government in January for allowing the Tigers freedom of movement, and put the state under federal rule. But many say the Tigers’ writ still is obeyed.

″The step came six months too late,″ Ramaswamy said. ″Now, their infiltration is complete. The fear psychosis they created in Sri Lanka they have achieved in Tamil Nadu.″

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