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Q+A – What is fate of civilians in Sri Lanka’s war?

[Reuters, Wednesday, 11 February 2009 08:57 No Comment]

At least 30,000 civilians have escaped Sri Lanka’s war zone this year, nearly all of them in the last week as the military has surrounded the Tamil Tiger rebels and is trying to deal a death blow to their separatist rebellion.

 

Here are some questions and answers about their situation:

 

HOW MANY ARE TRAPPED?

The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross say that around 250,000 people, nearly all Tamils, are trapped by the fighting in the north. The government says the figure is about half of that. The United Nations on Tuesday said it was preparing for an exodus of 150,000.

Already, dozens of aid workers are pouring into Vavuniya, a north-central town away from the fighting where the refugees are brought.

 

HOW MANY HAVE ESCAPED THE FIGHTING?

According to the military, slightly more than 30,000 as of Tuesday. Nearly all have escaped since Thursday, when the rate of people fleeing jumped up sharply.

 

WHAT KIND OF RISKS DO THEY FACE?

They must run a gauntlet between the Sri Lankan armed forces and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters who have been trading artillery fire. The northeastern jungles they have to get through are laden with booby traps and mines. And some civilians who escaped were blown up or wounded by a suspected LTTE suicide bomber on Monday at a centre where the military registers those fleeing.

 

HOW MANY HAVE BEEN KILLED OR WOUNDED?

The ICRC, the only aid agency with a permanent presence in the war zone, has said hundreds have been killed and injured in the past few weeks, but has not given an exact figure — save saying that 16 more were killed on Monday. The government says those overall figures are inflated, but blames the Tigers for killing at least 27 in the last week alone. The pro-rebel TamilNet website on Wednesday quoted the LTTE’s political chief for Puthukudiyiruppu, where most of the fighting is going on, as saying thousands had been killed, but he cited no source. Verifying any account is next to impossible in a war zone sealed off to independent observers.

 

WHY HAVEN’T MORE FLED?

Human Rights Watch, aid agencies and the government have said the Tigers have forced people to stay at gunpoint, and are using them to fight, build defences or act as human shields. The Tigers, who for years have had a policy of making every family hand one person over to fight, deny that. They say the people are staying of their own free will and fear government persecution at army-guarded refugee camps.

 

WHAT IS BEING DONE ABOUT THEM?

The Sri Lankan army says it has set up a 32 sq km (12 sq mile), no-fire zone in the middle of the battle area, and dropped leaflets urging people to go there. The LTTE says the military is firing into the safety zone indiscriminately. The Tigers have not answered the military’s accusation that they moved their heavy weapons near populated areas and hospitals. Diplomats and aid agencies are applying heavy pressure on both sides. The United Nations and ICRC are working hard at getting convoys to bring aid in and people out, but have been frustrated in most efforts.

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