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U.N.: Civilians Face Imminent Risk in Sri Lanka

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U.N.: Civilians Face Imminent Risk in Sri Lanka

Posted by Laura Heaton on April 10, 2009

Northern Sri Lanka may be on the verge of a "bloodbath," warned U.N. chief of humanitarian affairs and emergency response John Holmes, writing yesterday in the Guardian.

The Sri Lankan military has pushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam into an area so small that any shooting or shelling inevitably causes casualties among the 150,000 to 190,000 civilians trapped in the same zone.

The epicenter of violence is the government-declared "no-fire zone," a 14-square kilometer area of the Vanni region. Since the government’s full-scale offensive against the Tigers began in January 2008, the zone has been frequently targeted by shells fired by the Sri Lankan army. Resources for the civilian population within the zone are dwindling.

Returning this week from a 4-day visit to Sri Lanka, the U.N. official responsible for human rights of internally displaced persons recognized the grievances of both parties in the conflict:

I urgently repeat my call to the LTTE to allow all civilians under its control to leave this zone and to seek safety elsewhere. I also call on the Government of Sri Lanka to scrupulously respect the no-fire zone for as long as a civilian population remains within it.

The LTTE claims that civilians are choosing to remain in the LTTE-controlled Vanni region to avoid government persecution in camps for internally displaced. However, the Tigers are accused of forcibly conscripting fighters and preventing civilians from leaving, effectively creating a human shield.

The U.N. officials stressed the need for urgent cooperation between the government, aid agencies, and donors to prevent further carnage and called for mediated pauses in the fighting to enable civilians to travel to safety. An estimated 70,000 civilians have died in more than 20 years of fighting.