Mafaz, a Sri Lankan aid organiser who would not give his surname, told Aljazeera: "We hear of people being killed all the time, and we don't know what to think. Of course we want peace, but to be honest we don't know where it will go from here."

Accusations abound on each side of the conflict, but who is responsible for the slaughter of ordinary people remains a grey area. The list of innocent civilians who have been killed in the conflict runs into hundreds, but numbers are hard to confirm.  

The execution of 17 Sri Lankan aid workers, who were killed with one shot to the head while at work on August 4, exemplifies the confusion of Sri Lanka's 23-year war. The government has repeatedly blamed the Tamil Tiger separatists (LTTE) for the killing, while Nordic peacekeepers blame government forces.

A second autopsy is now being undertaken to unravel the execution of the 17 Tamil aid workers, who were employed by the French aid organisation Action Contre La Faim (ACF), but whether it will offer any conclusive proof remains to be seen.

Nine out of 15 bodies were exhumed in Trincomalee on October 18 and two bodies were exhumed earlier in the month. The autopsy is to be carried out by a Sri Lankan legal medical team with Australian experts present to observe. The arrival date of the Australians is still not known.

The case

ACF had repeatedly called for an international inquiry to determine the deaths of the 17 Tamil workers, when the first autopsy proved to be inconclusive. But it took two months to get permission from the Sri Lankan government.

Lucile Grosjean, a spokesperson for ACF, told Aljzeera: "We have been demanding an independent inquiry ever since."

Finally on October 4, the court granted permission for the second autopsy but the conditions were that a Sri Lankan medical team would carry it out, and that Australian experts could be brought in to observe.

Grosjean said: "We have however been given the option of having Australian experts present at a second autopsy not unlike the first, they will be there in a supervisory role."

Serious decomposition

During the first examination the bullets were not found, and according to Sacha Kolar, a specialist registrar in forensic pathology based at the Medico-Legal Centre in Sheffield, UK, with Sri Lanka being a hot climate the bodies will have suffered from some serious decomposition.

Both army soldiers and Tamil
rebels are suspects in the killings

This could reduce the clarity on drawing conclusions from forensics on how the killing was carried out, if no traces of ammunition can be found.

Kolar, told Aljazeera: "One of the most important factors to consider when looking at cases like this is the experience of the coroner carrying out the post-mortem.

"Also with Sri Lanka being a hot climate the bodies will have serious decomposition, which also brings to mind the question of identity. How confident are you of the identity of the bodies being exhumed."

Who is to blame?

The government has publicly been blamed by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) for the killings. The peacekeeping mission issued a report on August 30, that concluded there were no other forces in Muttur, at that time, and blamed the army for trying to cover up the killing by restricting movement of the SLMM in the region.

"There is a need for peace talks to begin, there is no other alternative than to go ahead with the talks"

Thorfinnur Omarsson, spokesman for the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission

Based on eye-witness accounts the SLMM report said: "The security forces of Sri Lanka are widely and consistently deemed to be responsible for the incident."

Finding concrete evidence in times of war is fraught with problems. But Sri Lankans are fed up with their government and do not understand how the country has come to this point after many years of relative calm.

A Sri Lankan taxi driver who lives in Qatar told Aljazeera on the condition of anonymity: "I don't understand what this government is doing. This government is very bad. The former prime minister was much better at handling this issue."

Refugee International, a US-based organisation that advocates assistance for refugees, said in a report on September 18 that although the Sri Lankan government held a good record on human rights, with many Sri Lankans believing that their basic needs had been met even during war and natural disaster, the humanitarian situation after the recent conflict was rapidly deteriorating.

Logistics of war

Only last month, 10 Muslim labourers were found hacked to pieces 9km south of Pottuvil in Ampara district. They were on their way to fix a sluice gate but never returned home.

Ampara is a government-controlled area and a Sri Lankan military [Special Task Force (STF)] camp is near the location of where the brutal killing took place.

Residents of the town reportedly said that they believed it was the STF who were acting in the area in co-operation with the Karuna faction – a spin off of the Tamil Tiger rebels, who have openly been supported by the STF.

Mafaz said: "It's no secret that there have been tensions between the local Muslims and the STF."

The government blamed the LTTE for the killing.

The Karuna faction has been operating freely in government controlled areas since the conflict erupted four months ago.

Thorfinnur Omarsson, a spokesperson for the SLMM told Aljazeera: "In the Batticoloa area, which is partly-government controlled,  the Karuna faction have been operating quite freely."

Peace talks

Peace talks are now on the table with a date set for October 28 and 29, when the government and the LTTE will travel to Geneva to hopefully put an end to the conflict.

Analysts say, with the recent upsurge in violence it is difficult to see how anything positive will come out of it. On October 16, at least 103 people - many of them navy sailors -  were killed when Tamil Tiger rebels bombed a Sri Lankan navy convoy.

It is likely that the SLMM will play a role in the peace talks because of the escalating violence; the type of role has yet to be defined though.

Omarsson told Aljazeera: "One might think there is no use for peace talks under the present situation, but quite the opposite is true. There is a need for peace talks to begin, there is no other alternative than to go ahead with the talks."

At least 103 people were killed in
an attack against navy personnel

What ever the outcome of the talks and/or the autopsy, it is clear that Sri Lankans have been hurt by the conflict and it has set up a deep distrust for this government. The families of the dead will deserve to be compensated for the loss of their loved ones, how the government will deal with it is yet to be seen.

Sri Lanka's aid workers continue to work in an environment that is becoming more and more dangerous day by day. The tragedy of Sri Lanka is that not only is the safety of aid workers important to help the thousands of people displaced by the conflict, but also to continue the ongoing reconstruction work in the tsunami affected areas.

Message

While the execution of 17 innocent aid workers remains unsolved it has sent a message to others.

Omarsson said: "It seems the one who carried out this attack did it to send a warning to others. International NGOs across the country have been threatened by anonymous groups. Especially local NGO workers who are working for international bodies."

Mafaz told Aljazeera: "I don't feel so safe anymore. I am planning to leave Sri Lanka at the end of this month. What can I do?"