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

[Reuters, Wednesday, 25 March 2009 07:35 No Comment]

Around 1,000 people daily have fled Sri Lanka’s war zone in the past 10 days, but fears are mounting for the safety of tens of thousands still trapped as Tamil Tiger rebels fight a last stand against a surging Sri Lankan army.

 

Here are some questions and answers about their situation:

 

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 25 sq km (10 sq mile) strip of coconut groves on the east coast. Aid agencies say 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).

 

HOW MANY HAVE ESCAPED?

About 54,000 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. A second exodus is now gathering speed. About 10,500 have fled in the last 10 days, despite heavy fighting between the Tigers and the army.

 

HOW MANY HAVE BEEN KILLED OR WOUNDED?

No one knows for sure, but U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay earlier this month said more than 2,800 civilians had been killed and more than 7,000 injured since Jan. 20 and the conduct of both sides could amount to war crimes. The government has rejected the figures as unsubstantiated, but they also tally closely with those on the pro-LTTE website www.TamilNet.com website.

 

WHY HAVE THE REMAINDER NOT LEFT?

Aid agencies, rights groups and witnesses say the LTTE is forcing some civilians, including children, to fight or build defences. Those who try to flee are shot. The Tigers deny the allegations and say civilians have stayed 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.

 

WHAT RISKS DO THEY FACE?

Besides the threat of getting caught in crossfire, northern Sri Lanka is awash in land mines and booby traps. The LTTE is accused of shooting those who try to flee. Health conditions in the no-fire zone are not good because so many people are packed in a tiny area.

 

WHAT IS BEING DONE FOR THEM?

Diplomats are working furiously to get the Tigers to let people go free, and for the government to consider laying a siege once they have encircled the no-fire zone instead of crushing the Tigers.

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