Md. part of separatist-group probe

FBI searches office of a Cumberland physician who heads a Sri Lankan charity

August 24, 2006|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

FBI agents searched this week the office of a Cumberland physician who is president of a Sri Lankan charitable organization suspected of funneling money to the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group deemed a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

The search came in the midst of a global investigation that has led to the arrests of 14 men. One group is accused of plotting to buy sophisticated weapons for the Tigers. Another group of defendants is accused of attempting to persuade State Department officials to remove the group from its terrorist list with a $1 million bribe.

Dr. N.A. Ranjithan, 60, said yesterday that FBI agents seized five computers and documents related to his work with the U.S. branch of the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization (TRO). The global network of groups was on the front lines of fundraising and relief work during the 2004 tsunami that devastated the island nation of Sri Lanka.

The computers were returned a day later, said Ranjithan, who said he knows only one of the men arrested in the FBI sting operation, and that individual is not affiliated with the TRO. He said he is "skeptical" of the charges but would reserve judgment.

FBI officials would not say if any of the defendants have TRO connections. At least one defendant is linked with the TRO in the criminal complaint unsealed Monday. Ranjithan, who said he was questioned by the FBI, adamantly denied that any TRO money goes to support the Tigers, saying that all of it is used for relief and refugee work in the Tiger-controlled areas.

"I think they're trying to find a link where there is no link," said Ranjithan. "They want to show that this money went to the Tigers. All our money goes to relief work."

"Why? Because the government doesn't do relief work there," he said, referring to the Sri Lankan government.

He accused the Sri Lankan government of having a genocidal intent. "I think they are intent on eliminating the Tamils," he said, declining to express his personal views on the Tigers.

The decades-old conflict in Sri Lanka, one of the world's bloodiest, has killed tens of thousands. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) was founded in 1976 to battle the government for a state in the northern and eastern areas of the country.

Tamils are an ethnic minority in a country made up largely of Sinhalese. Rebels charge that they have been oppressed by the Sinhalese-controlled government, which has been criticized for human rights abuses. In turn, the Tigers have seized control of most of northeast Sri Lanka with an army known for its suicide bombings, political assassinations and use of children as soldiers.

The LTTE and Sri Lankan government's fragile 2002 cease-fire agreement has crumbled in recent weeks, leading to a fresh round of violence.

The State Department designated the LTTE as a terrorist organization in 1997, making it illegal for Americans to donate money to it. Canada, which has a larger Tamil diaspora, took a similar step this year.

The men were arrested this week in New York, Connecticut, California and Washington state. Several were from Canada, and at least one lived in London.

Federal law enforcement alleges that a group of men traveled to Long Island and attempted to purchase Russian-made SA-18 surface-to-air missiles, AK-47s and other weapons from an undercover agent, according to the complaint.

The investigation, which began in 1999, was conducted by the Joint Terrorist Task Force in the FBI's Newark office, with the aid of 20 field offices and authorities in 10 countries. It was overseen by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn.

"For the most part, it was an intelligence-gathering operation," said Steve Siegel, a special agent in the FBI's Newark office. "More recently, when their efforts became far more serious in acquiring weapons of sophisticated military technology, that's when the decision was made to take it down."

In the complaints, the Justice Department labels the TRO as a "front charitable" organization used by the LTTE to raise money.

Questions about the TRO's relationship with the Tigers have been raised for years. The group acknowledges that it works with the Tigers to distribute aid because logistically it must.

Experts say most indications are that the TRO does funnel its money to the Tigers.

Peter Chalk, a senior analyst at the Rand Corp., said that in some cases, members of TRO branches dupe Sri Lankans into thinking they're contributing to a charity. "It's very difficult to trace where all the money goes, but there's a lot of indications that the TRO is essentially a front organization for the LTTE," said Chalk.

Robert Rotberg of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University said donations from the Tamil diaspora - especially in Europe and Canada - are the Tigers' main source of income. But he noted that many Tamils are not in support of the Tigers and are intimidated into contributing money, a practice that that has been reported to authorities in Canada.

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