/ 6 March 2009

Sri Lanka to open safe passages for civilians to flee

The Sri Lankan government appealed on Friday for tens of thousands of civilians to flee the northern war zone and said it would open two safe passages in the area for the exodus.

The civilians are trapped along with the Tamil Tiger rebels inside a shrinking strip of land along the northeast coast. Human Rights Watch said last week at least 2 000 civilians had been killed in recent weeks.

International officials have issued increasing appeals to the military and the rebels to halt their battle temporarily to allow the civilians to escape, but the government has refused, saying it was on the verge of crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and ending the quarter-century civil war.

Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona said on Friday the government was calling on trapped civilians to flee to government-controlled areas to the north and south along a coastal road.

”The idea is to ask the people to … walk away,” he said. ”We would hope that the LTTE, if they really are interested in their people, would let those people go.”

Kohona said the move did not amount to a temporary ceasefire.

It was unclear how the government’s announcement would change the situation on the ground.

Defense spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella said on Friday the military had no intention of permanently opening the two safe passages.

Instead, different exits from the war zone could be opened whenever needed, based on spot decisions by the government, he said.

With most communication to the north severed, the rebels could not be reached for comment. However, they have repeatedly appealed for a ceasefire.

The United Nations cautiously welcomed the government’s appeal.

”Any additional measure to relieve the suffering of civilians is welcome,” said UN spokesperson Gordon Weiss. ”Let’s watch and see if this translates into an effective safe passage for trapped civilians.”

Aid groups estimate 200 000 civilians are squeezed into an area of less than 50 square kilometres. The government says the number is closer to 70 000.

Human rights groups and ethnic Tamils who have fled the area accused the military of shelling civilian areas inside the war zone and accused the rebels of holding the civilians as human shields. Both sides deny the accusations.

The government’s announcement came hours after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon renewed his call for both sides to suspend hostilities to allow civilians to flee and urgently needed aid to be delivered.

The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state for the Tamil minority, which suffered decades of marginalisation at the hands of governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70 000 people have been killed in the fighting.

In recent months, the military has driven the rebels out of much of their de facto state in the north.

Residents of the war zone said they were facing relentless shelling that killed dozens of civilians Wednesday and Thursday and left many scrounging for food to survive.

Military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara denied the army, which is fighting to take control of the last rebel-held town, was responsible for the shelling. He accused the rebels of firing at a group of fleeing civilians on Thursday and Friday, leaving four dead and seven wounded.

The government has barred independent reporters from the area, making it impossible to verify accounts of the civilians’ plight or the fighting raging around them.

Nanayakkara said the army killed at least 50 rebels who launched a pre-dawn attack Thursday on troops in the area. Troops later recovered the bodies of 33 rebel fighters, he said. Twelve soldiers were wounded in the fighting, he said. Those figures were not able to be independently verified. — Sapa-AP