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Top UN relief official discusses humanitarian concerns with Sri Lankan President

Top UN relief official discusses humanitarian concerns with Sri Lankan President

Assistance for returnees and ensuring the safety of civilians and aid workers were on the agenda today as United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes met with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to discuss humanitarian matters in the South Asian island nation.

“Discussions on how to solve many humanitarian concerns were held in a positive spirit,” Mr. Holmes said after the meeting, which took place on the last day of a three-day visit to Sri Lanka. “There is now an opportunity to move forward constructively on many issues related to humanitarian assistance.”

The meeting focused on relief operations in the north and east of the country. Mr. Holmes spoke with the President regarding his visit to Batticaloa and Vaharai in eastern Sri Lanka, where UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have helped over 100,000 people return to their homes in areas taken by the Government after clashes with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Both Mr. Holmes and President Rajapaksa agreed that rehabilitating livelihoods and agriculture, as well as rebuilding civil administration and the police force, take precedence in assisting returnees to rebuild their lives.

Mr. Holmes, who also serves as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, welcomed the President’s assurance regarding the planned disarmament of paramilitary groups in the country’s east, which could bolster protection of returning internally displaced persons (IDPs) and other groups affected by the conflict.

More than 160,000 civilians became displaced in eastern Sri Lanka between October last year and May, according to UN humanitarian officials, including some people who were also displaced when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck the country in December 2004. Additionally, at least 3,500 people have been killed in the past year because of the renewed fighting in the decades-long conflict.

Mr. Holmes also underscored the importance of humanitarian agencies having continued and unimpeded access, as well as of improved safety for civilians.

“It is vital to develop a strong partnership between the Government and humanitarian actors to better assist those most affected by the conflict,” he said. “If humanitarian workers are better able to do their job, international support for recovery and normalization in eastern Sri Lanka will become much more likely.”

The two also agreed that the investigations into the killings of humanitarian workers – especially the 17 staff of the French NGO, Action against Hunger, who were killed last August – should be resolved quickly.