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UN calls for “maximum restraint” to protect civilians

Some 39,000 civilians fled the zone on 20 April, the largest number ever, although tens of thousands of civilians remain in the conflict zone and the no fire zone and in harms way
(Sri Lankan Army)

The UN has called on the Sri Lankan government to exercise “maximum restraint” to protect the lives of tens of thousands of civilians still trapped in a tiny pocket of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-controlled territory in northern Sri Lanka.

“While relieved at the numbers who have managed to escape from the fighting, there are still considerable numbers of civilians left inside,” UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka Neil Buhne told IRIN.

“Our calculations and reports from government officials still in the area suggest there are at least some tens of thousands, and perhaps as many as 100,000 or more left. We hope it is less, but we must be prepared for more,” said Buhne.

Over 100,000 people have fled the fighting between Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tigers since December 2008, including over 39,000 that crossed the frontlines near Puthukkudiyiruppu on 20 April - the largest number of civilians to escape the fighting in a day in the last 15 months.

According to Sri Lankan military sources, the civilians escaped the fighting after government troops pierced an earth bund around the 20sqkm so-called No Fire Zone, just east of Puthukkudiyiruppu on 20 April morning.

Call for greater humanitarian access

fighting continues and if the LTTE refuses to allow people to leave the
conflict zone, then we face the intolerable inevitability of seeing
many more children killed.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon deplored the continuing use of heavy weapons in the vicinity of civilians, and the LTTE tactic of preventing civilians from fleeing the conflict zone. He also called for wider access for UN agencies in the combat areas and the “welfare centres” accommodating escaped civilians.

“The UN must also be allowed to have full access to screening centres and any other reception points for those escaping the conflict zone. It is also important to ensure the sustainable resettlement of these internally displaced persons (IDPs) as soon as possible,” his office said in a statement released on 20 April.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that if civilians remained trapped within the combat zone, it could lead to “dreadful consequences”.

"If fighting continues and if the LTTE refuses to allow people to leave the conflict zone, then we face the intolerable inevitability of seeing many more children killed," UNICEF's regional director for South Asia, Daniel Toole, said in a statement on 20 April.

Gearing up to respond

International and Sri Lankan relief agencies told IRIN they were committed to continuing their assistance.

“For the US government the assistance to the World Food Programme (WFP) is extremely important and we are committed to continue with it,” Lona Middlebrough, spokesperson for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), told IRIN.

USAID is the single largest contributor to WFP assistance programmes in Sri Lanka, the spokesperson said. In 2008 it contributed essential supplies valued at US$29 million and recently made a $15 million commitment of supplies due to arrive on the island in June.

Middlebrough told IRIN funding by USAID would probably increase for WFP and other relief agencies.

Civilians fleeing the no fire zones for government controlled areas on 20 April

Sri Lankan Army
Civilians fleeing the no fire zones for government controlled areas on 20 April
Monday, April 20, 2009
Les Nations Unies appellent à un « maximum de retenue » pour protéger les civils
Civilians fleeing the no fire zones for government controlled areas on 20 April

Photo: Sri Lankan Army
Civilians fleeing the no fire zones to government controlled areas on 20 April

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) also told IRIN it was ramping up its aid as the numbers fleeing the fighting had dramatically increased.

“IOM plans to increase its assistance as the displaced numbers rise. It will continue its support in responding to the pressing needs of IDPs in shelter, water and sanitation facilities, transport, registration and logistic support,” Passanna Gunasekera, a spokesperson for IOM, said.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is also gearing up to respond to the growing numbers of displaced people. “UNHCR has stepped up its emergency response in Sri Lanka's north, where displacement numbers are growing,” it said on 17 April.

“UNHCR - together with the government and other partners - is responding with massive shelter support and regular distribution of non-food aid items while undertaking protection monitoring.”


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:

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