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Sri Lanka: UN relief chief reiterates concerns over civilians trapped by fighting

Sri Lanka: UN relief chief reiterates concerns over civilians trapped by fighting

Civilians continue to flee fighting in the north of Sri Lanka
The top United Nations relief official today repeated the world body’s concerns over the safety of civilians – numbering as high as 190,000 – trapped by fighting in northern Sri Lanka between Government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Addressing reporters after an interactive Security Council discussion on Sri Lanka, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, characterized the situation as “extremely worrying.”

Forced recruitment continues within the combat zone, and the LTTE is not allowing civilians out of the area, he said.

According to the UN, the conflict zone shrank from 300 square kilometres to nearly 58 square kilometres in February, with many civilians – Mr. Holmes today put the number between 150,000 and 190,000 – sheltering in a 14-square kilometre “no-fire” zone in the Vanni region.

“Our first appeal is to the LTTE to let the civilians out in a safe and orderly fashion,” Mr. Holmes said.

He also called on the Government to do all they can to avert civilian casualties and to not use heavy weapons in the area.

The official said he also reiterated a call for a “humanitarian pause” in fighting to allow much-needed relief in and to allow people to leave.

Those uprooted by fighting who are trapped in the no-fire zone have limited access to food, safe water, sanitation facilities and medical assistance, with the International Red Cross delivering a two-week supply of medicines aboard a ship to the zone and the World Food Programme (WFP) preparing to send 1,000 tons of food to the area by the end of the week.

Since January, over 40,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have escaped the conflict zone into makeshift camps, located mostly in Vavuniya, as well as Mannar and Jaffna, and nearly 4,000 shelters have been constructed at various IDP sites in Vavuniya District, where the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is setting up a temporary medical facility.

“We have a separate set of concerns over the situation in the camps and transit centres,” Mr. Holmes said today, calling for conditions in these sites to meet international standards.

Following a visit to Sri Lanka, he told the Security Council last month that movement into and out of these camps is “currently highly and unacceptably restricted.”