1. Home
  2. Asia
  3. Sri Lanka

Growing concern over civilians trapped in conflict zone

More than 60,000 civilians have fled the combat zone in the past two months.
More than 60,000 civilians have fled the combat zone in the past two months. (Sri Lankan Army)

Tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside rapidly shrinking areas of combat between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in northern Sri Lanka are a major concern for the UN, a visiting top official said.  

“The conflict is still going on, large numbers of people are being trapped in the Vanni [combat zone],” Walter Kaelin, the Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), told reporters in the northern town of Vavuniya on 4 April.  

“[There are] lots of casualties [among the trapped civilians]; this is of big concern to us,” Kaelin said. He toured IDP camps in Vavuniya where most of the more than 60,000 civilians who have managed to escape the fighting now remain. Kaelin was in the country from 2 to 6 April on an official mission.


Many more civilians are stuck in areas of fighting. The UN estimates between 150,000 and 200,000 are still in the 12km “no-fire” zone at the eastern edge of the combat zone. The government calculates the figure to be about 70,000.


Thousands have escaped the fighting in the past fortnight, travelling overland, risking death and injury. More than 7,000 made the dangerous trek in the last week of March and another 2,100 on 5 April, the Defence Ministry stated.

“Many people are arriving. They need to be received. They need to be assisted. They need to be protected. There are a lot of challenges,” Kaelin said.  

He said he met the Minister of Human Rights and Disaster Management, Mahinda Samarasinghe; the Foreign Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama; the Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, Rishad Bathiudeen, and local officials in Vavuniya Province.   

Kaelen said he would be making his recommendations at the end of his mission. “I have seen lots of efforts by the government; at the same time the situation is not ideal.”


Civilians escaping the combat zone in northeast Sri Lanka

Civilians escaping the combat zone in northeast Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan Army
Civilians escaping the combat zone in northeast Sri Lanka
Monday, April 6, 2009
Growing concern over civilians trapped in conflict zone
Civilians escaping the combat zone in northeast Sri Lanka

Photo: Sri Lankan Army
Civilians escaping the combat zone in northeast Sri Lanka

Heavy casualties

On 5 April, government troops gained full control of Puthukkudiyiruppu, in Mullaithivu, and reportedly recovered more than 400 dead Tiger soldiers after fighting over the weekend. The Defence Ministry said the Tigers were cornered in a 12km "no-fire" zone at the eastern edge of the combat zone.  


UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his concerns over the trapped civilians. “The Secretary-General is deeply distressed by continuing reports from the Vanni region of Sri Lanka that civilians are at extreme risk, with heavy casualties, and that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are keeping civilians in a very small area of active conflict against their will,” his office stated.

“While some have been able to leave or escape, reliable reports indicate that the LTTE have prevented others from leaving, including by firing at them.”

Ban repeated earlier calls to the Tamil Tigers to let civilians move out of the fighting zone. He also called on the government to avoid civilian casualties. “The Secretary-General again reminds the Government of Sri Lanka of its responsibility to protect civilians, and to avoid the use of heavy weapons in areas where there are civilians, as promised.”  

Evacuations to continue  

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has been evacuating sick and wounded civilians and care-givers out of the combat zone and transporting food supplies by ship, said such shipments would continue.  

“We obtain security guarantees from both sides before any sea movement is carried out,” Sarasi Wijeratne, ICRC spokesperson in Sri Lanka, said. The ICRC has so far evacuated more than 7,500 sick and wounded and care-givers in 18 trips since 10 February.   

The ships have carried food and medicine into the combat zone. On 3 April, World Food Programme (WFP) dispatched 1,000MT of food into the combat zone, the single largest shipment since the sea convoys began.

WFP stated in a press release that since February 2009, more than 2,200MT of supplies - sufficient to feed 132,000 people for 20 days - had been sent to the combat zone with the assistance of the government in ships flying the ICRC flag.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

Help us be the transformation we’d like to see in the news industry

The current journalistic model is broken: Audiences are demanding that the hierarchical, elite-led system of news-gathering and presentation be dismantled in favour of a more inclusive and holistic model based on more equitable access to information and more nuanced and diverse narratives.

The business model is also broken, with many media going bankrupt during the pandemic – despite their information being more valuable than ever – because of a dependence on advertisers. 

Finally, exploitative and extractive practices have long been commonplace in media and other businesses.

We think there is a better way. We want to build something different.

Our new five-year strategy outlines how we will do so. It is an ambitious vision to become a transformative newsroom – and one that we need your support to achieve.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian by making a regular contribution to our work - and help us deliver on our new strategy.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.