UN relief chief concerned over physical condition of Sri Lankans trapped by clashes

27 February 2009
Tens of thousands of conflict-displaced civilians remain trapped in the Vanni, Sri Lanka

The top United Nations humanitarian official today voiced concern for the hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans pushed into a progressively shrinking pocket of land in the northern part of the country due to clashes between Government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The world body estimates that some 200,000 people are being squeezed into a narrow 14-square kilometre patch of land on the coast in Vanni which the Government has declared a 'no-fire zone.'

Many of these people have been uprooted several times in recent months or years, and are in danger of getting caught in the crossfire between the two sides, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes, who visited Sri Lanka last week, told the Security Council in a closed meeting today.

“And there is strong evidence that the LTTE are preventing them from leaving,” he cautioned.

The violence has impeded humanitarian aid delivery, with supplies of food, medical supplies, clean water and other essential supplies in critically short supply.

“The risks from hunger and diseases are growing rapidly, in addition to those from fighting,” noted Mr. Holmes, who also serves as UN Emergency Relief Coordinator.

He told the 15-member Council of his visits to camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), adding that movement into and out of these sites is “currently highly and unacceptably restricted.”

With reports of the LTTE shooting some civilians trying to flee the Vanni pocket, Mr. Holmes said he called on the rebel group to allow people to leave and stop forced recruitment, especially of children.

He said he also called on the Government to do all they can to allow civilians to get out of the area safely through such measures as a halt to fighting or the creation of a humanitarian corridor.

“I trust that my pleas to all parties to do all they can to protect civilians and respect international humanitarian law will not fall on deaf ears,” Mr. Holmes said. “The continuing close attention of the international community will be a very important part of this, including scrutiny of the implementation of the assurances given by the Government.”

He also appealed to “those with any influence on the positions of the LTTE” to persuade the rebels to let civilians go.

“There is no time to lose,” the Under-Secretary-General stressed.

Addressing reporters following the closed-door meeting, Ambassador Yukio Takasu of Japan, which holds the monthly rotating Council presidency, said that there was a convergence of views among members that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Mr. Holmes continue to be engaged on the issue.

In a related development, a recently-opened sea route has allowed the World Food Programme (WFP) to deliver 40 metric tons of the agency's food – enough to feed 80,000 people for a day – to the Government-designated safe zone in the Vanni region.

Sailing under an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) flag, the supplies in the tugboat reached the area yesterday, with another shipment planned for tomorrow.

WFP now aims to deliver up to 300 metric tons of food supplies weekly by sea.

Since last September, the agency had been bringing food to the Vanni region by road convoys, but was forced in January to halt its deliveries due to the escalating hostilities.

WFP food has been reaching some 40,000 displaced people seeking refuge in Government-controlled areas in the north, with 145 metric tons of food having been supplied to 11 camps.

Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency today urged the Government to exercise caution and the LTTE to allow civilians to move to safe areas.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has received 300 acres of land from the Sri Lankan Government and seeks to set up a camp for 42,000 people by the end of the week. But given the large number of people trapped by fighting, the agency has asked for an additional 300 acres to shelter 85,000 civilians in all.


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