The United Nations refugee agency today called deep concern about the plight of civilians in Sri Lanka caught in the crossfire between the government forces and fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
“The fighting has caused displacement, injury and loss of life and property amongst all ethnic communities,” Jennifer Pagonis, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a press briefing in Geneva, citing reports that thousands of civilians are trying to flee the town of Muttur.
The agency is “particularly concerned by reports of deliberate displacement of particular communities,” she said.
On Thursday, the escalating violence in Sri Lanka prompted Secretary-General Kofi Annan to call on all sides to cease hostilities immediately, allow humanitarian agencies unimpeded access to those affected and resume peace talks.
Echoing this view, Ms. Pagonis stressed that UNHCR, which has been assisting civilians in Sri Lanka for nearly three decades, to have access to displaced people and for them to have freedom of movement.
“The parties have the primary duty and responsibility to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons,” she said. “This includes protection from displacement, protection during displacement and protection during return, resettlement and/or reintegration.”
Late last month, High Commissioner António Guterres visited Sri Lanka, urging both sides to support confidence-building measures to prevent the displacement of people in the first place and allow them to return home if they chose.
Since a 2002 ceasefire began to fray in April this year, some 50,000 more people have fled their homes and are living in neighbouring communities in Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Puttalam and in the north of the country. UNHCR is monitoring the displacement and providing protection and humanitarian assistance to the newly displaced.
Over 5,600 people have fled the country to southern India's Tamil Nadu region since January, according to the agency, which has been working in Sri Lanka since 1987.
More than 312,000 people have been displaced within the country since war erupted in 1983 between the government and the LTTE. The UN refugee agency assists about 67,000 displaced people in welfare centres throughout the country.