Sri Lanka: UN official urges Government, rebels to end civilian deaths

21 February 2009

The top United Nations humanitarian official today urged combatants on both sides of the battle ravaging the northern Vanni region of Sri Lanka to make greater efforts to stop the rising toll of civilian casualties and to protect the people trapped in a small pocket of land held by rebel fighters.

As thousands of Sri Lankans continue to stream out of Vanni, where Government forces are in the midst of a fierce armed offensive against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the UN emergency relief fund has targeted $10 million to assist civilians caught up in the conflict.

“I came because I am desperately concerned about this humanitarian situation,” said UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes at the end of his three-day visit to Sri Lanka to assess the condition of people who have recently fled the conflict.

“Tens of thousands of civilians have been cut off from outside food supplies for weeks, have limited medical care and are in extreme danger because of the continued fighting,” added Mr. Holmes, who is also the UN's Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Mr. Holmes called on the LTTE to free civilians kept in the remaining combat zone against their will, and to stop forced recruitment, particularly of children. He also pressed the Government to ensure a peaceful, orderly and humane end to what appears to be a decisive stage of the conflict.

In a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka earlier today, Mr. Holmes made clear his condemnation of the LTTE aerial attack on Colombo the previous night and expressed his sympathy for the families of the victims, according to a press release issued by his spokesperson.

Ongoing fighting, which has intensified since December, has trapped some 250,000 civilians in the conflict zone, and the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation has led to a large number of people taking the risk of escaping the fighting, with more than 30,000 already seeking shelter in and around the town of Vavuniya alone, and many more are expected to arrive in the coming days and weeks.

On his visit to Vavuniya, just south of the conflict zone, Mr. Holmes found that most of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) were mentally and physically exhausted after weeks of sheltering in makeshift bunkers but that their basic needs were met.

He welcomed the increasingly good cooperation between Government officials, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in providing urgent food, shelter and medical help.

Difficult challenges lie ahead, including rapid and transparent registration procedures, reinforcing the civilian nature of the camps, facilitating family reunification and greater freedom of movement, and ensuring the earliest possible return of IDPs to their homes, noted Mr. Holmes.

Before heading to Colombia for the next stage of his humanitarian needs assessment mission, the Emergency Relief Coordinator also announced the allocation of $10 million from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), a stand-by fund enabling a timely and reliable humanitarian reaction to those affected by natural disasters and armed conflicts.

“This contribution is a clear demonstration of the United Nations' commitment to meeting the urgent needs of the people affected by the conflict,” said Mr. Holmes, adding that he hoped “that donors will provide more support in other priority areas in the coming days, especially as humanitarian needs are so significant.”

The largest portion of the CERF, some $3.1 million, will go to the World Food Programme (WFP), to feed civilians uprooted by the fighting, as well as those who are still pinned down in the north. The World Health Organization (WHO) will also receive roughly $1.2 million to provide basic life-saving care.

A further $1.1 million will be provided to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to boost their operations protecting civilians in the area, including efforts to curb the recruitment of child combatants.

UNHCR will receive another $1.8 million from the CERF to help it set up emergency shelters with its partners, UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

In addition, the $1.9 million allocated to UNICEF will allow for the construction of emergency latrines, and the supply of clean water in the camps. CERF has also provided UNICEF with $385,000 for a programme which makes available emergency nutritional assistance and another $475,000 for temporary learning centers.

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Protection of children caught in Sri Lankan conflict 'first priority' – UN official

The United Nations official charged with the welfare of children in armed conflict today urged that priority attention be given to the fate of children in northern Sri Lanka, where Government forces are battling the separatists Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).