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Sri Lanka promises it will not endanger civilians

[Hindu, Friday, 6 February 2009 07:59 No Comment]

Hundreds of civilians fled Sri Lanka’s northern war zone Friday as the president promised the United Nations that the military would safeguard noncombatants while it pushed ahead with its offensive to crush the Tamil Tiger rebels.


President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s assurances came after Sri Lankan forces captured the rebels’ biggest sea base, effectively cutting off their main supply point and driving them closer to defeat, and the government rejected calls for a cease-fire that would allow civilians to escape the fighting.


Evidence has grown in recent days of mounting casualties among the estimated 250,000 civilians trapped in the shrinking sliver of land still controlled by the rebels. While reports from the sealed war zone were spotty, the top health official there said last week that 300 civilians had been killed, and the U.N. said at least 52 civilians were killed Tuesday.


In a 15-minute phone conversation Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, President Rajapaksa assured the U.N. chief that the offensive “would be carried out without harassment to the civilian population,” according to a statement from the president’s office.


Meanwhile, the military said at least 320 civilians had crossed the front lines into the government-controlled area Friday morning, and another 300 were waiting to cross. A total of 1,637 civilians crossed Thursday, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said, adding that the government saw this as the start of a large exodus from the war zone.


“It’s going to be a mass movement now,” he said.


With the rebels on the brink of defeat, the government has ignored calls for a brief truce to let the civilians flee the area.


“No force can stop this operation. Government forces have already achieved significant victories against the terrorists,” Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake told Parliament on Thursday.


Amnesty International called on both sides to declare a humanitarian cease-fire to allow civilians out and to let food, water and medical supplies be delivered to those who can’t leave.


“A quarter of a million people are suffering without adequate food and shelter while shells rain down upon them. Most of those who have managed to escape the conflict have not received adequate hospital treatment,” said Yolanda Foster, a researcher at the London-based rights group.


The U.S., Britain and Canada had previously called for a temporary truce.


Amnesty also expressed concerns that the civilians who have already fled the war zone were being housed in military-run transit camps with little freedom of movement.


Some 70,000 people have died in the 25-year conflict, which began after years of marginalization of the Tamil minority by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.


Hundreds of civilians have reportedly been killed in the latest round of fighting in the Vanni region in the north, where government forces have squeezed the rebels into a rapidly shrinking area. The military said Friday that the rebels controlled about 66 square miles (172 square kilometers). The U.N. said earlier in the week the rebels controlled only 30 square miles (85 square kilometers).


Sri Lanka barred nearly all aid groups from the war zone last year. It also does not allow journalists, making independent verification of the situation impossible.

[Full Coverage]

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