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Red Cross urges Sri Lanka to respect lives of Tamil civilians

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other agencies have raised the issue of a humanitarian crisis unfolding in the battle between Sri Lankan government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), with an estimated 250,000 civilians caught between the fighting according to the ICRC.

A school in the town of Mullaitivu, which was recaptured from Tamil nationalists on January 25.
Image: Umapathy.

Violence has intensified over the past few days in the Tamil-dominated northwest, where government forces have made strategically important gains, including the capture of Mullaitivu, the last rebel stronghold. But hundreds of thousands of civilians, nearly all Tamils, remain trapped within a 300 square kilometer war zone.

The ICRC, the only aid agency with a permanent presence in the war zone, says 250,000 people are trapped in the fighting, a figure that was repeated by the United Nations. The ICRC also claims that hundreds of civilians in the area have been killed or wounded, though an exact number was not given.

Sri Lankan officials say these figures are too high, though they have acknowledged the existence of some civilian casualties. In an effort to help civilians seek shelter, the government has unilaterally established a 32-square-km "no-fire zone" in the middle of the war area. The army dropped pamphlets urging civilians to go there for safety.

However, the LTTE have accused the Sri Lankan military of firing artillery shells into the safe zone, while the government denies such accusations. Likewise, the LTTE have denied the claim that they are using civilians as human shields by forcing them to stay in the area while holding them at gunpoint. The LTTE have yet to answer the military's accusation that they deliberately placed their heavy weapons near populated areas and hospitals.

In response to accusations of firing at civilians, President Mahinda Rajapaksa pledged that his military would respect the boundaries of the no-fire zone. In a late-night meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the president assured his forces would "minimize the effects of conflict on Tamil civilians." Mukherjee has pledged to send aid materials into northern Sri Lanka. However, some Indian media sources suspect this is a political move aimed at gaining favor with the DMK, a Tamil party in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Cquote1.svg We have a very large number of people, including tens of thousands of children, trapped in a fast-shrinking conflict zone. Cquote2.svg

—James Elder, UN spokesman

Meanwhile, the fate of civilians in the war zone remains uncertain, as the violence has prevented most foreign media and international agencies from entering the area. The ICRC has called on both sides to respect the lives of civilians. "People are being caught in the crossfire, hospitals and ambulances have been hit by shelling and several aid workers were injured while evacuating the wounded," said Jacques de Maio, the head of operations for the ICRC in South Asia.

The ICRC says hundreds of patients are in need of emergency medical treatment. However, the UN says the LTTE have fired at their convoys and refused to allow evacuations to the nearest hospital, while the military had resumed firing during an attempted evacuation. The UN condemned this as a violation of international humanitarian law, which requires a guarantee of safe passage for aid workers on both sides.

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"It's an incredibly serious situation," said James Elder, a U.N. spokesman. "We have a very large number of people, including tens of thousands of children, trapped in a fast-shrinking conflict zone." ICRC spokeswoman Sarasi Wijeratne did not explicitly accuse the LTTE of firing on their convoy, simply stating that the convoy had not been given full security assurances.

Sri Lankan military officials say the rebels are nearly defeated, with only about 30 kilometers of seafront remaining under their control. Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara claims the LTTE have 1,200 well-trained cadres left, while the Sri Lankan army has around 50,000 troops deployed.

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