/ 29 January 2009

Rights groups call on Sri Lanka, rebels to spare civilians

International rights groups pressed for urgent action to save up to 250 000 civilians trapped in northern Sri Lanka where government forces on Thursday fought to secure final victory over Tamil rebels.

Human rights bodies called for immediate steps by both the Colombo government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to spare the innocent as reports suggested ”hundreds” have already been killed and wounded.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said intense fighting between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE has trapped about 250 000 non-combatants.

”The situation for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable civilians trapped in the Wanni war zone [in Mullaittivu district] is becoming increasingly dangerous,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

”Both the government and the LTTE need to take urgent action to prevent large-scale civilian deaths.”

Amnesty International added its voice on Wednesday to that of the International Committee of the Red Cross and foreign governments in expressing fears for civilians.

”People displaced by the conflict are experiencing acute shortages of humanitarian aid, especially food, shelter and medical care,” said Yolanda Foster, the London-based Amnesty’s Sri Lanka specialist.

”There has been no food convoy in the area since January 16.”

Amnesty said the priority was to provide medical attention for the wounded.

Citing reports that the Tigers have prevented international aid workers from evacuating about 400 hospital patients from inside rebel-held territory, Foster added that ”the Tamil Tigers must let injured civilians go”.

”Preventing civilians from accessing medical care constitutes a war crime,” she said.

Sri Lankan forces were fighting their way deeper into the remaining jungle area in what the Defence Ministry describes as the final phase of operations against the Tigers.

The guerrillas had positioned their long-range artillery guns in an area declared a ”safe zone” for civilians and were firing at the military from there, the ministry said.

The Tigers wanted to create a ”last-minute civilian tragedy” because the army was about to defeat them, the ministry said in a statement.

More than 250 civilians have been killed and about 1 000 injured since the beginning of January, said T Varatharajah, regional director of health services for the battle-scarred northern district of Mullaittivu.

”There are dozens of unclaimed bodies lying in the hospital mortuaries because no relatives are coming forward to claim them,” Varatharajah told AFP by telephone.

The pro-rebel Tamilnet.com website says the civilian toll is far higher.

Sri Lanka has dismissed charges of widespread civilian deaths with military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara branding such claims part of a ”cheap propaganda exercise” by the Tigers.

However, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, on a hastily-arranged visit to Sri Lanka, said instant measures needed to be taken to protect civilians.

Mukherjee held talks with President Mahinda Rajapakse and left on Wednesday after getting assurances of safety for Tamil civilians.

Sri Lanka’s minority ethnic Tamils have close cultural and religious links with the 55-million-strong Tamil population in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The territory under the control of the Tigers has been rapidly shrinking since mid-2007 and the guerrillas lost their last urban centre when the military seized the town of Mullaittivu on Sunday.

Government forces are battling to capture 30km of seafront north of the desolate, bombed-out town.

Seizing the coastline would leave the remaining LTTE forces — and possibly Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran — encircled by troops.

Meanwhile, a pro-rebel website reported on Thursday that a senior Tiger rebel has been seriously wounded in the government’s ongoing military offensive.

Puthinam.com website said K V Balakumaran, believed to be one of about a dozen rebels in the very top echelon of the LTTE, was injured in an army attack near Mullaittivu on Monday.

The website said he had been ”admitted to the intensive care unit”.

Balakumaran is the former leader of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (Eros), an outfit blamed for a string of blasts in Colombo in the mid-1980s, including a failed attempt to bomb the hotel room of an Israeli diplomat.

The Eros eventually merged with the LTTE under the leadership of Prabhakaran. — AFP