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Sri Lanka Says 50,000 Civilians Flee Rebel-Held Areas

[Bloomberg, Tuesday, 24 March 2009 08:26 No Comment]

Sri Lanka said 50,000 civilians have fled to government-controlled areas since January as the army tries to defeat the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in its last strongholds in the north.

The number was reached when a group of 1,164 people arrived in Puthukkudiyiruppu in the northeast, the government said in a statement on its Web site yesterday, citing the Ministry of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services.

 

“The ministry expects an increase in the number of civilians crossing over from the conflict zone in the next few days,” the government said. Soldiers are fighting in the Mullaitivu region where the army says the Tamil Tigers control only 28 square kilometers (10.8 square miles) of territory.

 

The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates as many as 150,000 people may still be caught in conflict areas in the northeast. Aid groups and the United Nations have repeatedly called on the government and the LTTE to stop fighting to allow food and medicines into the area and people to leave.

 

“It is very difficult to have a precise estimate as people have been displaced so many times,” Sophie Romanens, an ICRC spokeswoman, said by telephone from the capital, Colombo, yesterday.

 

Cease-Fire Call

The head of the LTTE’s political wing called for a cease- fire at the weekend to allow aid to reach civilians, saying the Tamil people are being subjected to “genocidal warfare.”.

 

“Non-stop artillery and aerial attacks are creating an unbearable situation,” B. Nadesan said in an interview with the U.K.’s Sunday Times.

 

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government has ruled out any truce with the LTTE and is demanding the group’s unconditional surrender. There has been no official communication about a truce from the LTTE, Lakshman Hulugalle, director for the government’s Media Center for National Security, said yesterday.

The Sri Lankan army is continuing to shell areas declared a “no fire zone,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement today.

 

“We receive reports of civilians being killed and wounded daily in the ‘no fire’ zone, while the Sri Lankan government continues to deny the attacks,” Brad Adams, the New York-based group’s Asia director, said. “The Tamil Tigers’ use of civilians as human shields adds to the bloodshed.”

 

Aid Supplies

The government is providing food and aid by land and sea for displaced people in the north and the military is making every effort to avoid civilian casualties, Rajapaksa told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a telephone conversation last week, according to the government’s Web site.

 

Sri Lanka’s navy is evacuating civilians by sea from near the port of Mullaitivu, under the flag of the ICRC. A group of 495 people was brought out by ship two days ago, the 13th such evacuation in recent weeks, the Defense Ministry said yesterday on its Web site.

 

The UN said earlier this month as many as 2,800 people may have been killed and 7,000 injured since January, describing the casualties as “truly shocking.”

 

Civilian casualties have “skyrocketed” since January, Human Rights Watch said.

 

“The situation of civilians trapped in the conflict zone is aggravated by the acute shortage of food, sanitary facilities and medication as international humanitarian agencies cannot deliver sufficient supplies to the conflict zone,” it said.

 

The government accuses the LTTE of holding thousands of civilians in combat zones. The Tamil Tigers say 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.

 

Tamil Tiger fighters attacked an army special forces unit near the eastern port of Batticaloa on March 22, killing three soldiers, the TamilNet news agency in the north reported, citing the LTTE’s political division in the district. The army hasn’t commented on the report.

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