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

[Reuters, Thursday, 14 May 2009 12:52 No Comment]

Thousands of civilians under fire waded across a lagoon on Thursday to escape Sri Lanka’s war zone, where the military has surrounded Tamil Tigers rebels for the final battle in a quarter-century conflict.

 

Following are questions and answers about the plight of the thousands trapped in Asia’s longest-running modern war:

 

HOW MANY CIVILIANS ARE TRAPPED?

The United Nations says 50,000 or more. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) say 130,000 and the government says no more than 20,000. Diplomats say the number is immaterial with so many in harm’s way. The civilians are in a strip of northern coast, with water on both sides, measuring 2.5 square km (1 sq mile), the military says.

 

HOW MANY HAVE BEEN KILLED AND WOUNDED?

No one knows for sure. The Tamil Tigers on Thursday said over 1,700 people were killed and 3,000 injured in the last two days in heavy weapons attacks, which the military denies as an LTTE ruse to get a last-minute military reprieve. A U.N. working document says 6,432 civilians had been killed and 13,946 wounded in the three months from the end of January. But the United Nations has cautioned the data could not be reliably or independently assessed. Sri Lanka says figures are inflated to serve LTTE propaganda. Getting accurate information is near-impossible since few in the war zone can be said to be independent and few outside observers have been allowed in.

 

HOW MANY HAVE ESCAPED?

The military says around 200,000 civilians have fled this year, and more than half of them in the days after troops on April 20 punched through an earth barrier erected by the rebels to block entry and exit from their territory.

 

HOW ARE CONDITIONS FOR THOSE STILL TRAPPED?

Dangerous, if not outright deadly. They are packed tightly into a hot and sandy spit of land in a sea of tarpaulin tents, and the Red Cross has said food, water and medical supplies are limited. That is to say nothing of their position between heavily armed foes fighting to the bitter end.

 

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 footage from an unmanned aerial drone showing what it said were rebels firing at people trying to flee along the beach.

 

WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHO GOT OUT?

They are in refugee camps which were at first overwhelmed by the April exodus, but which aid agencies say have gotten better but still need millions of dollars to run. The LTTE says the facilities are "internment camps," but the United Nations has said they are up to international standards. The only exception is people cannot leave, nor their relatives visit.

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