Getting civilians out of Sri Lankan combat zone ‘top priority’ – UN relief chief

29 April 2009
Displaced Sri Lankan civilians at a special site near the town of Vavuniya

The estimated 50,000 people still trapped in the conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka are at great risk and the top priority must be to get them out as quickly as possible, the top United Nations relief official stressed today, again appealing for a further humanitarian pause in the fighting.

“These people are in great danger from the continuing fighting,” Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told reporters in New York, noting that the previously so-called ‘no-fire zone’ can now be more accurately described as a combat zone, given the ongoing clashes between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

“They’re not only in danger from the shelling and the shooting but also because their position in terms of food and other basic supplies is also very poor,” said Mr. Holmes, who just returned from a two-day mission to Sri Lanka that included a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapakse, as well as a visit to a site for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

The UN has been urging the Government for a further humanitarian pause for the sake of the people trapped in the conflict zone.

“So far the Government has not been willing to contemplate that on the grounds that the LTTE simply exploits any pause to regroup militarily and continue their resistance,” Mr. Holmes said. “But we continue to ask for that, not least to get in more humanitarian aid, to get in more food.”

During his meeting with the President, Mr. Holmes also stressed the need for access for UN humanitarian staff to the combat zone to assess what the conditions and the needs of the civilians. However, he was told that such a mission at this time would not be safe or appropriate.

“It’s disappointing that we’ve not been able to achieve the kind of further humanitarian pause that we’re looking for or the kind of humanitarian mission into the combat zone that we’re looking for but we will continue to pursue those issues.

“Meanwhile, it’s very important that the Government exercises restraint, particularly the use of heavy weapons, which they’ve said again earlier in the week they will not use in that zone,” he stressed. “I hope very much that that promise will be respected.”

He added that it is vital that the LTTE let the civilians who they are holding against their will go, let them out to safety and preferably lay down their arms and surrender to prevent further fighting and further loss of life.

“Unfortunately at the moment, both sides are pursuing their military logics, if I can put it that way, and therefore that’s the reason why we’re in such a difficult position,” stated Mr. Holmes, who also serves as UN Emergency Relief Coordinator.

The UN estimates that the number of people who have crossed out of the conflict zone is now some 175,000, the vast majority of whom are in and around Vavuniya. The exodus of about 110,000 people just in the course of last week, noted Mr. Holmes, has posed, despite advance planning, very considerable logistical challenges in terms of shelter, food and other basic services.

According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), one of the most serious concerns is congestion in the camps. Shelter in the camps remains inadequate, and there is an urgent need for the allocation of more land by the Government in which to house the displaced.

Health facilities continue to be overwhelmed and more capacity is needed. Water and sanitation remain key concerns, with some areas having only one toilet for 140 people. Although all IDPs have drinking water, there is inadequate water for other purposes. Psychological trauma is also a serious issue.

In addition to the immediate concerns, Mr. Holmes also cited the need to address issues such as the long-term future of the people in the camps, how much freedom of movement they will be allowed, and how quickly they will be able to return to their homes, as well as questions about family reunification and the military presence in the camps.


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