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Obama: Sri Lanka must end warfare

[AP, Wednesday, 13 May 2009 21:29 No Comment]

obama2 President Barack Obama scolded both sides of Sri Lanka’s quarter-century-old civil war on Wednesday, demanding that the government stop shelling hospitals and that Tamil Tiger rebels cease using civilian shields.

 

Before leaving the White House to deliver a commencement speech in Arizona, Obama told reporters that the situation on the south Asian island could turn from a humanitarian crisis to a full-blown catastrophe. He strongly urged both sides to take steps to alleviate suffering.

 

"Tens of thousands of innocent civilians are trapped between the warring government forces and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka with no means of escape, little access to food, water, shelter and medicine," Obama said on the White House’s South Lawn. "This has led to widespread suffering and the loss of hundreds, if not thousands of lives."

 

Officials in Sri Lanka said artillery shells on Wednesday tore through a hospital for a second day, killing at least 50 and crippling the medical facility. Health workers said the government launched a wave of bombardments in the war zone this weekend and has killed as many as 1,000 people.

 

The Sri Lanka government says its troops are not responsible for the shelling and that the military has not fired heavy weapons in the area in weeks.

 

But Human Rights Watch says satellite images and witness testimony contradict that claim and has accused both sides of using the estimated 50,000 civilians packed into the tiny coastal strip controlled by the rebels as "cannon fodder."

 

Obama said the United States is ready to work to end the conflict.

 

"Now’s the time, I believe, to put aside some of the political issues that are involved and to put the lives of the men and women and children who are innocently caught in the crossfire, to put them first," Obama said.

Amnesty International urged Obama to push for a truce and appealed to the U.N. Security Council to establish a commission of inquiry into violations of international law. Outside the White House, protesters have been chanting in recent days of Obama to take action.

 

Obama urged the Tamil Tigers to stop fighting and release civilians as a first step toward peace. "Their forced recruitment of civilians and their use of civilians as human shields is deplorable. These tactics will only serve to alienate all those who carry them out."

 

He also said the government should stop the "indiscriminate shelling" and the use of heavy weapons in the conflict zone. He asked the government to give the United Nations and Red Cross staff access to the 190,000 displaced civilians.

 

"Going forward, Sri Lanka must seek a peace that is secure and lasting and grounded in respect for all of its citizens," Obama said. "More civilian casualties and inadequate care for those caught in resettlement camps will only make it more difficult to achieve the peace that the people of Sri Lanka deserve."

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