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Four people die inside Sri Lankan internment camps

[Times Online UK, Wednesday, 6 May 2009 15:32 No Comment]

At least four people have died inside the internment camps where the Sri Lankan Government is holding and screening almost 190,000 ethnic Tamil civilians who have fled the fighting with the Tamil Tigers, The Times has learnt.


Three women were found dead at a bathing area in one camp on Monday, and a child was crushed to death in a stampede for food in another last week, according to UN officials and documents.


They were the first reported deaths inside the controversial camps, which the Government says are necessary to root out the rebels, but some Tamil activists and MPs have likened to concentration camps.


The UN officials said that the three dead women were found in a camp called Manik Farms Zone 2, where Des Browne, the former Defence Secretary and four other British MPs were taken yesterday to view the humanitarian relief effort.


A spokesman for the British High Commission said that the MPs were not informed about the deaths and did not raise them in meetings with President Rajapaksa and other senior officials.


Gordon Weiss, the UN spokesman in Colombo, said that the UN refugee agency had raised the women’s deaths with the Sri Lankan Government and asked for female security officers to guard the women’s bathing areas in the camps.


“They’ve indicated that they’re going to do this,” he told The Times, adding that he had no further details about how the women died.


Sri Lankan officials were not immediately available for comment.


Aid workers had warned for weeks that women in the camps were at risk of sexual harrassment — or worse — because they were having to wash themselves in the open in the absence of proper facilities.


Many aid workers had also accused the Government of dramatically underestimating the number of civilians who would flee the frontline, and failing to prepare sufficient food, water, medicine and shelter.


The UN said that there were 186,704 civilians in the camps as of Monday, including more than 100,000 who arrived in the last two weeks.


The stampede that killed the child was caused when an aid agency was distributing food aid from the back of a truck.


The Government has since ordered aid agencies not to distribute food in this way, according to the latest report from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.


That report, issued yesterday, also said that the UN had asked donor countries on Monday for $50 million in urgent funding to provide clean water, shelter, medicine and other basic facilities in the camps.


“The urgent provision of water, sanitation and hygiene interventions… remains a challenge,” it said.


There were high rates of respiratory infections, diarrhoea, and other illnesses, including serious conflict-related injuries, and that many children under 5 were suffering from acute malnutrition, the report added.


The UN says that the Government has a case for establishing internment camps to check that the civilians are not Tigers and to de-mine their villages before resettling them.


But it says the government must free children and the elderly, provide better access to aid agencies and allow oversight of the screening process if the camps are to meet international humanitarian standards.


It also wants the Government to allow the UN and other aid agencies to help an estimated 50,000 civilians still trapped on the frontline.

[Full Coverage]

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