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Q+A-Plight of civilians at end of Sri Lanka’s war

[Reuters, Monday, 4 May 2009 17:15 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s military said on Monday troops had advanced a few hundred metres into the Tamil Tiger rebels’ remaining turf, where tens of thousands of people are trapped in the last stage of the island’s 25-year war.

Here are questions and answers about the peoples’ plight:

HOW MANY ARE TRAPPED?
That is a subject of great debate. The United Nations says 50,000 or more are in danger. Sri Lanka’s government estimates no more than 20,000 and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) say 160,000. Diplomats say the number is immaterial with so many in harm’s way, and a host of nations have pushed for a humanitarian truce. The civilians are in a tiny strip of northern coast, with the ocean to the east and a lagoon to the west, measuring no more than 5 square km (2 sq miles), according to the military.

HOW MANY HAVE BEEN KILLED AND WOUNDED?
A U.N. working document said 6,432 civilians had been killed and 13,946 wounded in fighting since the end of January. However, the world body says those numbers were based on information that cannot be reliably or independently assessed, and as such cannot be official. The government has consistently called casualty figures inflated to serve LTTE propaganda purposes. The two sides blame each other for killing civilians. Getting accurate information is nearly impossible, since very few people inside the war zone can be said to be free of rebel influence and few independent observers have been permitted in.

HOW MANY HAVE ESCAPED?
The military says nearly 116,000 have fled since April 20, the day troops punched through an earthen barrier the Tigers erected to block entry and exit. More than 200,000 have left since the beginning of the year.

HOW ARE CONDITIONS FOR THOSE STILL TRAPPED?
Dangerous if not outright deadly. The Red Cross has said the situation was "nothing short of catastrophic" for those trapped and packed tightly into the tiny area. Food, water and medical care are in short supply, the Red Cross says. That is to say nothing of the fighting. The Tigers say the government is still shelling the area, which Colombo denies.

IF THINGS ARE SO BAD, WHY HAVEN’T THEY RUN?
The rebels stop civilians by shooting at those who try to escape, witnesses and a host of nations have said. The LTTE denies that. The government has released video footage from an unmanned surveillance drone showing what it said were Tiger sentries firing at a group of several hundred people trying to escape along the beach.

WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHO GOT OUT?
The United Nations has warned the exodus strains available resources and has already exceeded the capacity of existing camps. The government has appealed for international aid. The LTTE says the facilities are "internment camps", but the United Nations has said they are up to international standards. The only exception is that people cannot leave, nor their relatives visit.

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