In saris and sandals, Sri Lankan villagers prepare for ‘bombardment’

KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka, May 24, 2006 (AFP) – When the whistle blows at 6:00 am sharp, village women in saris and men in sandals line up in military formation. Another morning’s “self-defence training” is about to begin in rebel-controlled Sri Lanka. With tension increasing on the island, the Tamil Tiger guerrillas say they have reintroduced the program to help villagers protect themselves in the event of wider hostilities.

In Uthayanagar East village just outside Kilinochchi, the “capital” of territory held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), roosters crow as the group snap to attention on a scrubby football field.

A rebel fighter in striped camouflage raises the Tigers’ red flag before the villagers bow their heads in tribute to those who have died in action, and shout a pledge for the “homeland”.

Then they break off, the women in one direction, the men in another, for a jog past a cow and several grazing goats.

The rest of this morning’s hour-long training is taken up with gymnastic exercises, and sometimes accompanied by laughter.

“This is good for the body,” said Sivakamaran Sutharsini, 26, one of 17 women stretching and twisting to the commands of a short-haired female rebel as the morning sun creeps over the tre