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Sri Lanka Fighting Displaces 36,000 Civilians, Red Cross Says

[Bloomberg, Sunday, 15 March 2009 11:45 No Comment]

Fighting between Sri Lankan soldiers and Tamil Tigers has driven about 36,000 civilians from conflict zones to refugee camps in three northern districts of the country, the International Committee of Red Cross said.

The government must ensure that people who have left the war zones are provided a safe environment with adequate shelter, and returned voluntarily to their homes “as soon as conditions permit,” the agency said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.


Sri Lanka says it’s on the verge of defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which has waged a 26-year campaign for a separate Tamil homeland. The army says it has driven the group into an area of less than 55 square kilometers (21.2 square miles) in the country’s northeast after capturing its main bases in operations since January.


Members of the Red Cross met Sri Lanka’s minister for disaster relief on March 13 and “the understanding is that the authorities will grant all facilities” required for the deployment of the agency’s staff, according to the statement.


Access to the conflict zone is restricted to the media and claims from both sides are difficult to verify.

“We need to know more about what is going on but we know enough to be sure that the situation is absolutely desperate,” said United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, according to a March 13 statement on the agency’s Web site. Shelling has continued inside the government’s “no-fire” zones and more than 2,800 civilians may have been killed and more than 7,000 injured since Jan. 20, she said.


‘War Crimes’


Both sides may have committed war crimes, the current level of civilian casualties is “truly shocking” and there are “legitimate fears that the loss of life may reach catastrophic levels,” Pillay said. The UN estimates that as many as 180,000 civilians remain trapped inside the war zones in the country.


The Sri Lankan government disputed the report, saying the casualty figures are incorrect and Sri Lankan soldiers do not target civilians, according to a statement from Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe on the government’s Web site.


Sri Lanka is “dismayed by unsubstantiated figures and comments,” Samarasinghe said yesterday, according to the statement. The minister hoped in the future “proper procedures would be followed before issuing such unsubstantiated statements that lacked balance with regards to truth and actuality.”

Pillay called on the government and the LTTE to immediately suspend hostilities to allow evacuation of the entire civilian population by air or sea. She urged the government to allow full access to the UN and other independent agencies for an accurate assessment of the humanitarian conditions in the war zones.

Civilians Flee


At least 592 civilians reached a government-controlled area in Puthukkudiyiruppu in northeastern Mullaitivu district, the Media Centre for National Security said in a statement on its Web site. Another 423 refugees were taken in a naval ship from Pudumathalan to Trincomalee district yesterday.


The rebels shot at fleeing civilians injuring 14 of them, including a member of a UN agency, according to a Defense Ministry statement.


The Tamil Tigers say the military is shelling and bombing civilian areas and that people are staying in LTTE-held territory of their own free will because they don’t want to be placed in government-run internment camps.

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