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UN: Sri Lanka war causing civilian catastrophe

[AP, Wednesday, 4 March 2009 17:52 No Comment]

capt.photo_1236183862593-1-0 Civilians trapped in the war zone in northern Sri Lanka are dying because they lack food and medicine in what the United Nations described Wednesday as an "unfolding humanitarian catastrophe."


An army offensive has driven the Tamil Tiger rebels from most of their strongholds in recent months and corralled them in a narrow strip of territory on the northeastern coast of the island.


Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said troops were fighting their way into Puthukkudiyiruppu, the last rebel-held town in the region.


An estimated 2,000 civilians have been killed and many more wounded in the fighting in recent months, and concern is mounting for those marooned in the last pocket of land controlled by rebels.


U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss said at least 100,000 were camped on a sandy strip measuring less than 6 square miles (14 square kilometers) between a brackish lagoon and the ocean.


Nanayakkara said the area was receiving two shipments of food daily and that medical supplies were sent Tuesday.


But Weiss said civilians were getting only a fraction of the supplies required and faced a "lethal cocktail of circumstances," including inadequate shelter and water supplies.


"Deaths associated with a lack of food have become a reality," Weiss told The Associated Press. A shortage of medicine led to the deaths of nine children who had preventible diseases such as pneumonia and meningitis in late February, he said.


"This is an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe," Weiss said.


He said the U.N. was pressing authorities for "immediate, consistent, sustainable access" to the area and appealing to the rebels to stop preventing civilians from fleeing.


The government has rejected calls for a cease-fire, insisting it is close to a final victory. Officials and rights groups accuse the rebels of using civilians as human shields.


Nanayakkara said soldiers attacking Puthukkudiyiruppu were fighting "house to house, street to street" and suffering casualties from rebel land mines and mortar fire.


He denied claims on the rebel-linked TamilNet Web site that army shelling had killed scores of civilians in the past few days, including many in a military-designated "safety zone" along the coast.


The Red Cross said it evacuated 356 patients and dependents by ship Wednesday from a makeshift clinic in the safe zone that has been swamped with sick and wounded civilians.


The army has dismantled the rebels’ de facto state in the north and east in recent months and appears on the brink of ending the quarter-century civil war.


Still, a series of attacks in the south have raised fears the rebels could sustain a long guerrilla war even after defeat.


Two paramilitary troops were killed Wednesday when Tamil Tiger fighters emerged from the jungle in the southern Monaragala district and ambushed them, the military said.

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