Violence in the eastern town of Muttur erupted last week after a dispute over a neighbouring water sluice. The LTTE on Tuesday released water from the reservoir on what it called "humanitarian grounds", but the Sri Lanka government had still to confirm that the Tamil Tigers had lifted the blockade.

If the fighting continues, it could lead to a major humanitarian crisis.

Newly arrived refugees are providing harrowing accounts of their escape from Muttur - and speak of possible ethnic cleansing.

"I am from Muttur," says Abdul Hajeen, a native of the town at the centre of the current fighting between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE).

"My house has been destroyed, along with many others. We fled to a school, but then even that was hit." Hajeen then spent the next four days walking across country to the camp at Kantale, 30km away.

The conflict in Sri Lanka has been largely confined to the northeast so far, but has left a 2002 ceasefire agreement in tatters.

Muslims flee

The renewed violence has hit civilians hard. Photo: Jody Sabral

Muttur had been home to over 60,000 people, most of them members of Sri Lanka's Muslim community. Now, aid agencies say, almost all of these people have either fled to camps in government-controlled areas south of Muttur, are still on the road - or are trapped in the town.

"As of 10am this morning there were 39,236 people in the camps around here," said Abdul Mujeeb of the NGO Muslim Foundation for Cultural Development. They are running the Al Tariq camp, on the outskirts of Kantale, some 30km from Muttur.

"In our camp alone we have about 6,000 people and more are arriving all the time."

Within a week the number of camps in the region has risen from four to 26. 

A road block outside Pearathuweli camp Photo: Jody Sabral

"We know there are about 3,500 people still heading this way," said Mujeeb.

"They are all walking through the countryside, through the fighting, to get here."

The relief effort has been simply overwhelmed. At Al-Tariq there are just 20 toilets for 6,000 people. Piles of trash litter the site, spilling out from a clutch of school buildings into surrounding fields.

At the largest camp, Pearathuweli, also near Kantale, some 14,000 people live under tarpaulins, plastic sheeting and any other shelter they can find.

A muddy stream runs past the camp which is now shared by both refugees and local livestock.

"Many children here have acute respiratory illnesses and we're also seeing the beginning of scabies and diarrhoea," Marc Nosbach of children's NGO, CCF, told Aljazeera.net.

"It's very overcrowded. There is a great need for food, medicines, and mosquito nets. We also have a lot of children looking for their parents and vice versa. We are also hearing stories of people being filtered at LTTE checkpoints on their way here."

Executions

These stories are confirmed by many arriving at the camp. To escape Muttur, the refugees must pass through government and LTTE controlled territory.

"The LTTE told us it would be safe," says 14 year old Fedula, who would not let us use his real name for fear of reprisals against family still in the fighting area. "So we left Muttur and went across country. But then the LTTE pulled us all into an open area and first separated the women and men."

The eastern region is home to a
mix of religious communities

Hajeen takes up the story. Both he and Fedula are from the Arabic College district of Muttur and have just arrived in camp after walking since Friday.

"Then they took all the young men away and tied some of their hands," he says. "One man, he tried to run so they shot him in the leg. Then they brought him back to where we were standing and shot him dead right there in front of us."

The same story is repeated elsewhere.

"The LTTE told us we could not escape Muttur by road as it was mined," Abdullah Salam, a carpenter from Muttur, said.

"They told us it would be safe to go across country - through the villages they control. But then when we arrived, they pulled hundreds of people out of the line - all young men - and we never saw them again. We have no idea what happened to them and we are frightened because there were bodies everywhere around these villages."

Sailuth Umme, a housewife also from Muttur now in Pearathuweli camp, said: "There were men wearing masks, pointing out who in the crowd should be taken out. Why did they lie to us? Why did they tell us it would be safe?"

Widespread killing?

Now, those that made it through are deeply worried about those who did not.

"The LTTE asked us to make a last request," says Fedula. "We said we would pray. Then, some artillery shells started landing and the Tamil Tigers began to run away. We also ran. Some of us were shot down but most of us made it. But what about the others? Who will go back and recover the bodies or find out what happened?"

Refugees queuing for aid at Al-Tariq camp Photo: Jody Sabral

Stories of such killings are widespread, as are accounts of LTTE fighters separating out young men from the rest of the refugees and taking them to an unknown fate. Many Muslim aid workers have no doubt what lies behind this.

"It's part of a pre-planned attack on the Muslim community," Mafaz Nijam, and aid organiser with Jamaath-e-Islami, a Sri Lankan Muslim foundation at Pearathuweli, told Aljazeera.net.

"Before all this, they were putting up signs in Muslim villages saying that the Muslims should leave as this was Tamil territory. They want this area for themselves and want to get rid of Muslims."

Multi-ethnic region

The area which has seen the most recent fighting comprises Muslims, mainly Hindu Tamils and some mainly Buddhist Sinhalese. Support for the LTTE is largely derived from the Tamil Hindu community, although they too have suffered in the fighting.

Near to Kantale, 80 Sinhalese families are also taking shelter in a Buddhist temple.

Muslims speak of possible ethnic
cleansing, a charge LTTE denies

"This area is a patchwork place of different villages and different areas controlled by government and LTTE forces," says Peter Krakolinig, the deputy head of delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who is active in the aid effort in Sri Lanka.

"There are a lot of points of friction. Nowadays too, we have a ceasefire only on paper."

For its part, the LTTE denies any attempt to drive out the Muslims.

"We are there offering them security against government attacks," an LTTE spokesman told Aljazeera.net on condition of anonymity. "This is also a dirty war tactic of the kind government forces have used before, trying to blame LTTE for something they have done themselves."

Still in camps

Refugees from Muttur register for aid Photo: Jody Sabral

Nevertheless, 40,000 people are trying to make do as best they can in the squalid camps around Kantale. While aid is arriving, the numbers are also growing, while fears of disease and even further attack plague the traumatised inhabitants.

"We cannot go back," says Salam. "There is no safety. None anywhere. Who will provide the Muslims with security? The LTTE did not and neither has the government."

Some remember the fate of Muslims in Jaffna, in the north of the island.

"In the early 1990s, the LTTE did exactly the same thing," says Nijam. He pauses and asks: "Do you know where the Muslims who fled Jaffna back then are living now?

"In camps. Still in camps."