Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sri Lanka war zone closed to UN

Al Jazeera, April 28, 2009

Thousands of civilians are trapped inside a strip of land held by Tamil Tiger fighters [AFP]

The United Nations’ humanitarian affairs chief has failed in his attempt to bring a halt to fighting between government forces and Tamil Tiger separatists in Sri Lanka.

John Holmes was unable to get permission from Mahinda Rajapkase, the Sri Lankan president, to allow a UN aid mission into a pocket of rebel-held land that is surrounded by the Sri Lankan military.

“We don’t have agreement on this [failure to get a UN team into the conflict zone] … I am disappointed about this,” Holmes said during his visit to the country on Monday.

The United Nations estimates that up to 50,000 non-combatants are still in the conflict zone, although the government maintains that the number is less than 20,000.

The Sri Lankan military said on Monday that it had ordered its troops to end the use of heavy weaponry and aerial bombardment in their fight against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), commonly known as the Tamil Tigers.

‘No change’

Holmes met Rohitha Bogollagama, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, before visiting camps in northern Vavuniya where more than 113,000 civilians have sought refuge in camps that are overcrowded and still without enough supplies.

Focus: Sri Lanka

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Caught in the middle

But David Chater, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, said that the UN official had not managed to secure access to the combat zone for a small team from the world body.

“Absolutely nothing has changed as a result of John Holmes’ visit, apart from another ten million dollars in humanitarian aid being pledged,” Chater reported.

“[That money could provide] at least a bit of relief for those who got out of the combat zone, but no relief for those still inside.”

Aid organisations, journalists and other independent observers are banned from entering the conflict zone, making independent assessment of the continuing fighting impossible.

Sweden’s foreign minister said on Tuesday that he has been refused entry to Sri Lanka on a European mediating mission aimed at bringing about an immediate ceasefire between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE.

Carl Bildt was due to visit the country on Wednesday with his British and French counterparts, but he told the Associated Press that Sri Lankan authorities did not give him permission to enter the country.

David Miliband, the British foreign minister, and Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, will be allowed into the country, Bildt said.

‘Army halted’

“We ask the international community to intervene in this problem and save our people… We [the LTTE] carry weapons to save our people and protect their rights”

Thileevan, an LTTE spokesman inside the conflict zone

The Sri Lankan government said on Monday that it would stop intensive fighting against the LTTE in an effort to ease the suffering of civilians, although the statement contradicted earlier assertions that it would continue its fight against the Tigers who had offered a ceasefire on Sunday.A statement from the president’s office said on Monday: “Combat operations have reached their conclusion.”

Soldiers will “confine their attempts to rescue civilians who are held hostage and give foremost priority to saving civilians”.

The military has also ordered troops not to use “heavy-calibre guns, combat aircraft or aerial weapons, which could cause civilian casualties”, the statement said.

The Sri Lankan government had previously said that no heavy weapons were being used in populated areas and that the operation was merely a “rescue” exercise.

But Chater said that hostilities had not necessarily ended.

“The government is determined there should be no pause in the fighting … [The government] says it knows how ruthless [the Tamil Tigers] are and have no intention of negotiating with them unless they lay down their arms and surrender.”

LTTE accusation

A pro-Tamil Tiger website on Tuesday accused the military of continuing to pound areas of the conflict zone populated by civilian.

Thileevan, an LTTE spokesman inside the conflict zone, also told Al Jazeera that the area had been shelled heavily.

“We don’t know how many people were killed because we could not get out of this area. But when I went to the hospital this morning I saw hundreds of severely wounded people,” he said on Tuesday.

Holmes’ attempt to get access to the conflict zone was rebuffed by Colombo [AFP]

“We ask the international community to intervene in this problem and save our people… We [the LTTE] carry weapons to save our people and protect their rights.”A day earlier, the Tamilnet website quoted S Puleedevan, an LTTE spokesman, as saying the government’s announcement on non-use of heavy weapons was an attempt “to deceive the international community, including the people of Tamil Nadu [a Tamil-majority Indian province]“.

The Sri Lankan military has denied the LTTE claims, but says it is aiming to capture more territory and that its aim is to wipe out the Tamil Tigers.

Tamils in India have been pressuring the Indian government to intervene to bring about a ceasefire in Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan forces are continuing with “humanitarian operations aimed at rescuing” the remaining civilians trapped in the island’s northeast, where the LTTE is defending a narrow strip of jungle, the military said on Monday.

“We reduced the coastline they have to 6km from 8km last week,” Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman, said.

“Our operations are continuing, and yesterday we managed to rescue another 3,200 civilians,” he said.

About 110,000 civilians escaped from the LTTE-held combat zone last week after an ultimatum by the government for the Tamil Tigers to surrender.

Sri Lanka’s government has said it is on the verge of defeating the LTTE after 37 years of conflict, and has consistently brushed off international calls for a truce.

On Sunday, the government also rejected an LTTE call for a unilateral ceasefire.

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