Civilians face increasing risk amid Sri Lanka fighting, warns UN humanitarian chief

16 January 2009

The United Nations is increasingly concerned for the well-being of tens of thousands of civilians caught up in the conflict raging in the northern Vanni area of Sri Lanka pitting Government forces against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the world body's humanitarian chief said today.

“As fighting surrounds the areas towards which families have been displaced, and with few choices about where to move, they are increasingly susceptible to harm due to the fighting,” Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said in a statement.

“While they have had access to basic food, in large part due to the Government and the UN assistance transported through the lines of fighting,” he said, “they have few, if any, reserves and the conditions of their basic shelter, water and sanitation are increasingly inadequate as many have been displaced multiple times over the last months, weeks and days.”

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that around 230,000 people have been displaced due to intensified fighting in the north of the country during the second half of 2008.

“The United Nations calls upon the LTTE to allow civilians to be able to move freely to areas where they feel most secure and for the Government to receive newly displaced people according to internationally agreed principles,” stated Mr. Holmes, who is also UN Emergency Relief Coordinator.

“In addition, the UN calls for civilians to be protected from the fighting and for civilians to continue to have access to basic humanitarian assistance.”

Meanwhile, the head of the UN agency tasked with defending freedom of expression and press freedom has condemned the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of the Sri Lankan newspaper Sunday Leader, who was shot as he was driving to work on 8 January.

Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said in a statement issued yesterday that no matter how controversial or polemical the editor's writings may have been, he should have been allowed to enjoy the basic human right of freedom of expression.

“Moreover, publications like the Sunday Leader stimulate debate, which can only bolster democracy,” he stated. “I trust that the culprits of this crime will be sought out and brought to trial, so as to ensure that Sri Lanka continues to enjoy the benefits of a free press.”

According to Reporters without Borders, Mr. Wickrematunga is the third journalist to be killed in the South Asian nation since January 2008.

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