Sri Lanka: UN official concerned over shelling of hospital, worsening civilian plight

2 February 2009
Internally displaced people wait for aid at a distribution point in eastern Sri Lanka

A United Nations humanitarian spokesman in Sri Lanka today voiced concern over the shelling of a hospital in the zone of fighting between the Government and rebel forces, emphasizing the ever-increasing threat to the lives of some 250,000 civilians trapped by the conflict.

Gordon Weiss of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that the hospital, in the north-east of the island nation, was shelled numerous times over the past day, resulting in the killing of 11 people altogether, including one nurse.

Mr. Weiss said that it is uncertain where the shellfire came from but that his office had notified both the Government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) about the damage, but the strikes have not halted.

The hospital has around 600 patients, with new people arriving all the time of which hundreds are critically injured and cannot be treated. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is trying to negotiate a new convoy out of the area and into Government-controlled territory, where the patients can be treated properly, Mr. Weiss said.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) is continuing negotiations with the Government to secure an adequate window for the next humanitarian convoy into the area, though no convoy has gotten in since last week, according to OCHA.

The main priority of the UN right now is preserving the lives of the trapped civilians, Mr. Weiss told the UN News Centre in an interview over the weekend.

“Of course, the priority is to get in humanitarian aid, getting food and medicines to these people. There are four hospitals, so we need to make sure that they are adequately stocked with medicines,” he said. “But, primarily, this is a question of preserving life.”

He said that many have been displaced for up to a year by fighting, some 10 or 15 times, and they lack proper shelter and steady food.

“Certainly their medical facilities are under extraordinary pressure with the number of casualties they are dealing with just in the past few weeks as the fighting has pressed them into the last remaining pocket of territory,” he added.

He stressed that in the last two weeks alone there had been a great loss of civilian lives, with UN staff witnessing the death and wounding of dozens a week earlier.

The fighting has been bad during the past 25 years of the conflict, he said, but stressed, “This is the first time that such a large number of civilians have been caught in the theatre of combat from which they can’t escape.”

Last week Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced a safe passage for the trapped civilians, issuing a unilateral declaration that the LTTE had 48 hours to leave the combat zone, but Mr. Weiss cautioned it remains to be seen whether the rebels will allow people to leave.

They have long maintained a very tight control system using passes and as far as UN staff knows, it still remains in place, he said.

“Regardless of whether they move or not, according to laws of war, international humanitarian law, both parties are obliged to refrain from actions that will cause unnecessary deaths and suffering,” he emphasized.


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