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Tiger Trap

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Tiger Trap

Posted by Rebecca Brocato on April 17, 2009

Tiger Trap

Reacting to what was, by most accounts, an unproductive “humanitarian ceasefire”– intended to enable civilians trapped in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to travel to safety – some Western governments had strong words for Colombo.

“Democratic governments are rightly held to higher standards for civilian protection than terrorist organizations,” the British and French foreign ministries said in a joint statement. The comments from the U.S. State Department were more oblique: “The Sri Lankan government, as the legitimate sovereign power, has before it an opportunity to put an end to this lengthy conflict,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.

In a conflict that began more than 20 years ago, at least 70,000 people have died. Both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers have been credibly accused of committing atrocities. The Tigers, who once controlled vast swathes of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, have been driven into a 14-square mile territory where they are co-mingled with a civilian population of some 140,000. The humanitarian ceasefire this week was meant to allow the civilians safe passage. However, the Tigers claim that the population will not leave the territory for fear of persecution by the Sri Lankan government. The government claims that the Tigers are preventing civilians from leaving and accusing them of using the civilians as a human shield.

To be sure, the statements from the U.S., Britain, and France note that solving the humanitarian crisis will require cooperation from both sides. Britain and France did not shy away from castigating the Tigers, blaming the rebel group from forcefully preventing civilians from leaving the area, and calling for the Tigers to “renounce terrorism and lay down their arms as a necessary element for a long-term solution.”

Laura Heaton and John Norris contributed to this post.

Photo: A survivor of a government shelling recovers at a makeshift hospital in Putumattalan, from Human Rights Watch