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Tamil MPs say Sri Lanka ignoring civilian safety

[AP, Tuesday, 17 February 2009 12:40 No Comment]

Tamil politicians accused the Sri Lankan government Tuesday of ignoring the safety of tens of thousands of civilians in its campaign to wipe out the Tamil Tiger rebels, saying more than 2,000 noncombatants have been killed in the recent fighting.

 

The accusation came as UNICEF accused the rebels of stepping up their forcible recruitment of child soldiers to aid in the fight against the military onslaught.

 

In recent weeks the military has pushed the rebels to the brink of defeat, ousting them from their administrative capital of Kilinochchi and trapping them — and an estimated 200,000 ethnic Tamil civilians — in a small strip of land along the coast where artillery and gunbattles are routinely erupting.

 

Government officials say they are on the verge of crushing the rebels’ quarter-century war for a breakaway state for the nation’s Tamil minority.

 

Independent information on the fighting is not available because the government has barred journalists and most aid workers from the war zone.

 

The pro-rebel Tamil National Alliance political party said it had managed to compile a list of the civilians killed using the Tamil media, witness accounts and reports from medical authorities in the war zone.

 

According to its count, more than 2,000 civilians were killed since December and more than 4,500 were wounded, said Rajavarothayam Sambanthan, a lawmaker from the party.

 

"The situation is getting worse by the day. More and more people are killed and wounded," he said.

 

"The government is only concerned about its military victory against the LTTE," he said, referring to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels. "The government is completely unconcerned about the safety and security of civilians."

 

Government spokesmen were not immediately available for comment, but they have previously denied large numbers of civilian deaths and said they were doing everything possible to safeguard noncombatants.

 

The government and human rights groups accused the rebels of holding the civilian population in the area hostage. Civilians evacuated from the area said the rebels shot at some of those who tried to flee, while medical authorities in the north accused the government of indiscriminate shelling in heavily populated areas.

 

Sambanthan said the conflict was devastating for the civilian population in the area.

 

"The government claims the war is conducted to liberate the Tamil people, but thousands of people are living under trees for weeks, their properties have been destroyed, they are starving, they are exposed to weather," he said.

 

Meanwhile, the rebels have been increasingly turning to children as young as 14 to fill the ranks of their fighters, UNICEF said.

 

"These children are facing immediate danger and their lives are at great risk. Their recruitment is intolerable," said Philippe Duamelle, the Sri Lankan representative for the U.N. Children’s Fund. "Child soldiers suffer physical abuse, traumatic events and face death. Instead of hope, fear defines their childhood."

 

The rebels have a long history of recruiting children and UNICEF said it has recorded 6,000 such cases since 2003.

 

Rebel officials could not be contacted for comment because most communication to the conflict zone has been severed. However in the past rebel officials had told UNICEF they would halt child recruitment and release all child combatants.

 

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for the ethnic Tamil minority. More than 70,000 have been killed in the fighting over the years.

 

Aid groups say some 200,000 civilians are trapped in the combat zone and could be caught in the crossfire. Last week the top health official in the region said about 40 people were being killed every day.

 

The Red Cross also expressed concerns about the civilians in the northern war zone, especially the sick and wounded at a makeshift hospital in the coastal village of Putumattalan.

 

"Families continue to arrive in Putumattalan in a state of utter exhaustion and despair, hoping to be treated and rescued. But the reality is that there is an almost complete lack of medicine and relief items there," said Paul Castella, the head of the Red Cross delegation in Sri Lanka.

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