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UN demands protection for Sri Lankan civilians under fire from deadly shelling

UN demands protection for Sri Lankan civilians under fire from deadly shelling

The top United Nations official in strife-torn Sri Lanka has called on both sides in the conflict to urgently protect civilians in Vaharai in the east of the island, after five days of deadly shelling that has killed an unknown number, left dozens wounded and forced thousands to flee their homes.

“The critical need of the moment is the protection of these desperate civilians. All fundamental rights are currently being breached in areas like Vaharai and villages in Trincomalee District and it is imperative that direct shelling where civilians reside stops,” said Amin Awad, Acting UN resident and Humanitarian Coordinator.

He said civilians must be granted “full and unhindered freedom of movement away from military operations,” referring to the conflict between Sri Lanka’s Government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that has intensified since April, and especially over the past few weeks.

“The wounded need to be evacuated and assistance and protection to the civilian population guaranteed,” Mr. Awad said, calling on both parties to respect their responsibilities under international law, including allowing access for humanitarian aid to the north and east of the country.

Echoing these concerns, the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, highlighted in particular a recent attack on a school and the effect the decades-old conflict is having on the country’s young people.

“Attacks on schools and hospitals are clear violations of international humanitarian law. The recent mortar attack by the LTTE on a school in Kallar village which killed one child and wounded 10 school children is a grave violation. Indiscriminate shelling by both sides against civilian targets has resulted in a great deal of suffering.”

“This kind of warfare takes an enormous toll on children. Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim children have all suffered terribly in the last few months. The Government must take responsibility to secure humanitarian access to the population and the LTTE must stop placing its military hardware in civilian areas,” she added.

In Trincomalee district, some 2,500 civilians have left their homes and taken refuge in Kantale, while approximately 35,000 people remain trapped along a sliver of land in the east where Government troops and the LTTE are fighting, Mr. Awad’s office said in a press release.

Humanitarian agencies are delivering immediate assistance to the affected population and separately the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was helping almost 4,000 people in Kantale, who were forced to flee their homes in the Serunuwara, Somapura and Sooriyapura areas when fresh fighting flared early last Friday.

“We anticipated that more people would be coming, so we got relief items ready for around 200 families. We are expecting even more people to make the 45-kilometre journey to Kantale in the coming days,” said Agron Dragaj, a UNHCR field worker in the area.

UNHCR is working with the Government, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to provide assistance to the growing number of people arriving in Kantale. This type of collaboration is imperative to ensure that the immediate needs of the displaced are met.

Fighting between Government forces and the LTTE has lasted for more than 20 years, despite a ceasefire agreed in 2002 aimed at ending the conflict that has claimed some 60,000 lives.