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Q&A: What is fate of civilians trapped in Sri Lanka war

[Reuters, Tuesday, 17 March 2009 08:26 No Comment]

At least 2,600 people have fled Sri Lanka’s rapidly shrinking war zone over the past three days, the military said on Tuesday. But tens of thousands remain trapped in increasingly dangerous circumstance, aid groups say.

 

Here are some questions and answers about them:

 

HOW MANY ARE TRAPPED?

According to the Red Cross, about 150,000 people, but the government says there are no more than 70,000. Nearly all are in a 12-km (7-mile) long strip of coconut groves on the coast, which also has water on the inland side and is no wider than a half-kilometre. The army has declared the area a no-fire zone but the Tamil Tigers and the United Nations says the military has fired into it. The military denies the allegation as propaganda designed to produce pressure for a ceasefire that would give the Tigers time to regroup. Aid agencies say food and clean water is in short supply but the government is bringing it in by boats sailing under the flag of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The government last week said the Tigers shelled one boat, forcing it to leave.

 

WHY HAVEN’T THEY FLED ALREADY?

Aid agencies, rights groups and witnesses who have escaped say the LTTE is shooting people who try to run, and forcing people, including children as young as 15, to fight. The United Nations on Monday said the LTTE had dragooned two of its local employees and dependents of three of them, including a 16-year-old girl. The Tigers deny all of the allegations, and say people stay by choice because they fear persecution at army-guarded refugee camps. The U.N.’s top humanitarian official, Sir John Holmes, visited some camps last month and said they met standards, but urged greater freedom of movement for residents. The government says it needs time to separate innocent civilians from Tiger infiltrators.

 

HOW MANY HAVE ESCAPED THE FIGHTING?

About 41,500 since Jan. 1, the military says. Almost all came out in a 10-day period that started when soldiers reached an old no-fire zone at the end of January. Since Saturday, about 2,600 have gotten out despite heavy fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the army.

 

HOW MANY HAVE BEEN KILLED OR WOUNDED?

No one knows for sure. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Friday said more than 2,800 civilians had been killed and more than 7,000 injured since Jan. 20. She warned that the conduct of both sides against civilians could amount to war crimes. The government immediately rejected the allegation and called the figures unsubstantiated. Pillay has not identified the sources for the data. Officials familiar with the data say it was synthesised in Colombo and uses a mix of eyewitness reports and figures from government health officials working in the war zone. In any case, the government has criticised past aid agency reports of deaths as inflated for propaganda purposes. It noted that Pillay’s numbers closely reflected those given by the pro-LTTE website http://www.TamilNet.com. The government has acknowledged some civilians may have been killed, but not on a mass scale. The Tigers have never acknowledged killing civilians.

 

WHAT RISKS DO CIVILIANS FACE?

Besides the threat of getting caught in the crossfire in a war zone now no more than 30 square km (12 square miles), northern Sri Lanka is awash in land mines and booby traps. A mine injured the wife of a Sri Lankan U.N. staff worker who escaped on Monday. The Tigers also have been accused of firing from heavily populated areas, and the military of returning fire. Both deny that.

 

WHAT IS BEING DONE ABOUT THEM?

Diplomats are working furiously to get the Tigers to let people go free, and for the government to have a brief pause in fighting to let that happen. The Tigers have so far rebuffed all entreaties. The government says it will set up two routes out of the no-fire zone and guarantee safe passage.

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