Saturday, April 25, 2009

Trapped Sri Lankans face starvation

Al Jazeera, Apr 25, 2009

The UN says 6,500 people have died in the conflict in three months [AFP]

Tens of thousands of civilians in Sri Lanka’s northern war zone face starvation, Tamil Tiger separatists and government officials have said.

The warning comes as the UN’s senior humanitarian official is due in the country to assess the crisis.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said in a statement on Saturday that food stocks had dwindled, making starvation “imminent”.

They have called on the UN and the international community to ensure that supplies are swiftly sent to the area where an estimated 50,000 people remain.

“We fear that further delay can result in a crisis similar to that faced in Darfur or even deadlier,” the group said in a statement published on the rebel-allied TamilNet website.

Dire situation

The civilians’ dire situation has deteriorated in recent days with the Sri Lankan military pressing ahead with its offensive to destroy the LTTE in a war that has been raging for a quarter of a century.

Al Jazeera’s David Chater, reporting from Sri Lanka, said: “We have heard from many people that humanitarian supplies still around were being taken by the Tamil Tigers and sold to the people [displaced by fighting].

“Many of the people I saw were in an advanced state of dehydration. Many of the older people were extremely malnourished and you can only imagine what it is like for the children trapped inside the conflict zone.”

Camps for the displaced have received 100,000 people in just a week [AFP]

He said that the camps for internally displaced people had recieved a “huge influx” - more than 100,000 in just one week - and they “definitely need help as well not only from the UN but also from any government that can bring aid to them”.”It is a desperate situation for those who have just escaped and the Tigers said it was equivalent to Darfur and might even be deadlier,” Chater reported.

Aid workers say more than 100,000 civilians have fled the tiny coastal strip still under the control of the LTTE, flooding hospitals in the north and overwhelming government-run camps for the displaced.

Dr Gnana Gunalan, director of health services in Trincomalee district and former chairman of Sri Lanka Red Cross, told Al Jazeera that the displaced people he saw had starved for days and were malnourished and needed food.

“Their first priority is food. Everybody is asking for food,” he said.

The UN says at least 50,000 civilians remain caught in the war zone.

The Tamil Tigers says the number of civilians is three times that estimated by the UN.

Medicine shortage

Dr Thangamuttu Sathyamurthi, a senior Sri Lankan government health official, said on Friday that there was a severe shortage of food and medicines.

The government has barred aid groups and journalists from the area since last year, arguing that it is too dangerous for them.

The UN sent John Holmes, its senior humanitarian official, to Sri Lanka on Saturday to look into the welfare of the civilians, Marie Okabe, the UN deputy spokeswoman, said.

The humanitarian situation “continues to be critical, civilian casualties have been tragically high and their suffering horrendous,” Okabe said.

Thousands killed

The UN says nearly 6,500 civilians have been killed in the fighting over the past three months.

The Tigers, listed as a terror group by many Western nations, have been fighting since 1983 for an ethnic Tamil state in the north and east after decades of what they call marginalisation by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.

After more than three years of intense fighting, the government appears on the verge of crushing the group.

Riding a wave of popularity from its war success, Sri Lanka’s ruling party appeared the favorite to win Saturday’s council election in the Western province.

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