Thursday, February 19, 2009

UN official: Prevent Sri Lanka civilian casualties

UN official: Prevent Sri Lanka civilian casualties

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — The United Nations' top humanitarian official urged the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels on Thursday to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties amid heavy fighting in the country's civil war.

John Holmes was to travel to near the northern war zone Friday to discuss the conditions of more than 30,000 displaced ethnic Tamils currently in government-run camps south of the fighting and the plans for tens of thousands of others expected to join them in coming weeks.

Government forces have captured the main strongholds of the Tamil Tiger rebels in the north in recent months and cornered them into a small sliver of land on the island's northeastern coast along with tens of thousands of civilians.

"We are concerned about reports of heavy casualties to the civilian population" trapped in the area, Holmes told reporters after meeting with Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama. He called on both sides to avoid civilian casualties and appealed to the rebels to allow civilians to flee if they wish.

Human rights groups have accused the government of indiscriminate shelling in the war zone and have also accused the Tamil Tigers of using the civilian population as human shields and of shooting at many who have tried to flee.

Both sides deny the accusations. Verification of the reports is not possible because the war zone is sealed to independent journalists and most aid workers.

On Wednesday, at least 38 Tamil civilians were killed and 140 others wounded by government artillery attacks and air strikes, a top health official in the war zone said. Tamil parliamentarians have said more than 2,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting since December. The military denies targeting civilians.

Aid groups estimate that more than 200,000 civilians are trapped in the war zone, but the government says the number is about half that amount. Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said Wednesday that his country is ready to help evacuate the civilians.

Distrust between the government and international aid workers has grown in recent years as the fighting between the rebels and the military has escalated. The government has repeatedly accused aid groups of supporting the rebels and announced Tuesday it was appointing a commission to investigate whether international agencies have channeled aid to fund terrorist activities..

Holmes came under fire in Sri Lanka in 2007 when he said the country was among the most dangerous places in the world for humanitarian workers after the still-unsolved execution-style killing of 17 workers employed by a French aid group.

A Cabinet minister lashed out at Holmes, calling him a terrorist who was on the rebels' payroll.

Meanwhile, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said that the soldiers killed two low- ranking rebel leaders in a clash near Puthukudiyiruppu village and seized Jet Ski-style watercraft, underwater diving gear and oxygen cylinders.

The rebels have a small naval unit, the Sea Tigers, that carries out seaborne suicide attacks on the Sri Lankan navy, sometimes using divers to fix explosives onto ships.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state for minority Tamils after decades of marginalization by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.


Education for Liberation!
Peter S. Lopez aka: Peta


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