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Sri Lanka war rages as U.N. urges civilian protection

[Reuters, Wednesday, 18 March 2009 10:02 No Comment]

Sri Lankan troops killed at least 18 Tamil Tiger rebels in clashes in a shrinking war zone, the military said on Wednesday, and the United Nations again urged greater protection for thousands of trapped people.


Sri Lanka’s military has the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cornered in 30 square km (12 sq miles) of the Indian Ocean island’s northeast, and is battling to deal a final blow to their 25-year separatist rebellion.


But tens of thousands of civilians are trapped there, most in a narrow coastal strip the military has designated a no-fire zone where government health officials say food and medicine is in short supply.


The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF in a statement overnight said hundreds of children were among the 2,800 civilians who have been killed in fighting already, and warned that many more were still at risk. The government calls the figures unsubstantiated.


"Children and their families caught in the conflict zone are at risk of dying from disease and malnutrition," UNICEF executive director Ann Veneman said.


The United Nations said last week the Tigers are forcibly holding thousands of people inside the war zone and making them fight or build defences. The LTTE denies that.


"Regular, safe access for humanitarian agencies is urgently required, so that lifesaving supplies can be provided, and civilians must be allowed to move to safe areas where essential humanitarian support is more readily available," Veneman said.


The government says 70,000 people are in the war zone, while the Red Cross estimates 150,000. Since Saturday, the military says 4,200 people have escaped.


Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said troops had recovered the bodies of 18 Tamil Tigers on Tuesday, and that fighting raged again on Wednesday.



Hundreds of deaths due to wounds and serious diseases could have been prevented if more medical supplies and facilities were made available, the top government medical officials inside the war zone said in a letter to the health ministry.


The regional health directors for the Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi districts have been forced to move their facilities across northern Sri Lanka as the Tigers made the civilian population flee with them when the army advanced.


"More than 500 civilian deaths, either on or after admission, have been registered at the hospitals and thousands of civilian deaths could have gone unrecorded as they were not brought to the hospitals," the letter said.


The health ministry confirmed the letter’s authenticity and said there may be a drug shortage because of the difficulty of bringing in supplies, which come in a large ferry and are then carried ashore in small boats.


"As of now there may be acute shortage because of the current situation, because transferring drugs to uncleared areas is not very fast as compared with the past," Dr. H.P.A Kahanddaliyage, secretary to the health ministry, told Reuters.


Last week, the military accused the Tigers of firing at the boat, which sails under the Red Cross flag, and forcing it to leave. The Red Cross confirmed the incident but said bad weather ultimately forced the boat to go back.

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