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

[AlertNet, Friday, 20 March 2009 08:12 One Comment]

At least 3,000 people in the past two days fled Sri Lanka’s war zone, where Tamil Tiger rebels hold just a few square kilometres outside a no-fire zone in which tens of thousands are trapped, the military said on Friday.

 

Here are some questions and answers about the people:

 

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 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and 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. The Tigers are also firing heavy guns from inside the area, the United Nations has said. Aid agencies say food, medicine and clean water are in short supply, but the government is bringing in what it can by boats sailing under the flag of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

 

WHY HAVEN’T THEY FLED ALREADY?

Aid agencies, rights groups and witnesses say the LTTE is shooting people who try to run, and forcing some, including children as young as 15, to fight. 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 the innocent from Tiger infiltrators.

 

HOW MANY HAVE ESCAPED THE FIGHTING?

About 48,000 since Jan. 1, the military says. Most came out in a 10-day period that started when soldiers reached an old no-fire zone at the end of January. But a second exodus is now gathering speed, with around 7,200 fleeing since Saturday, according to military figures. They have fled despite heavy fighting between the Tigers and the army. Among the most recent group of escapees were 643 who fled under rebel fire in three dozen small boats. The navy said it chased off the LTTE, which has yet to comment on that.

 

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 said 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 the figures were synthesised in Colombo and use a mix of eyewitness reports and information from government health officials in the war zone. In any case, the government said Pillay’s numbers closely reflected those given by the pro-LTTE website 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 non-combatants.

 

WHAT RISKS DO CIVILIANS FACE?

Besides the threat of getting caught in the crossfire in a war zone now no more than 25 square km (10 sq 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 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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One Comment »

  • S.V.Ramanan said:

    1.Irrespective of the dispute over numbers, is it not the duty of a Government to protect its citizens,that is if they consider Tamilians as their citizens?What sort of an army/Govt is this that is afraid of/can not prevent LTTE from regrouping?If you are winning the war, then you should be confident of handling limited number of LTTE personnel( as claimed by the Army). Are you admitting that you can not prevent a handful of LTTE from regrouping?Either your statement that LTTE is nearly finished is a lie or the army is incapable of handling few LTTE,unless of couuse your intention is to play the world opinion on LTTE as a terrorist organisation, use that bogey as an excuse to wipe out the Tamils?The world is running out of patience on your stand/excuses in not saving Tamils trapped and the time is not far off when LTTE may look like an angel when compared with your action.
    Again, why are the internatinal relief agencies not allowed to operate?
    What are the conditions in the temporary camps you have built for the civilians?What has happened to millions of dollars you have received in aid to build temporary homes for these civilians?
    Agreed that the LTTE is recalcitrant, as they are irresponsible.But what about the Government? Why can’t they declare cease fire, seek international help in controlling LTTE and relocate civilians.?