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Civilians Bear the Brunt of War in Sri Lanka

April 28th, 2009

Conditions are grim in the tiny strip of coast in northern Sri Lanka where tens of thousands of civilians are trapped between the warring LTTE and Sri Lankan Army forces. Lack of food, water and medical supplies coupled with daily bombardment by heavy artillery have made this area a living hell.

UN sources have estimated that 6,432 civilians have been killed since January 20 of this year while another 13,946 have been wounded. This does not include all the bodies that are lying by the roadsides. We have received reports that today, numerous people were killed while 1,374 were injured and admitted to two hospitals. A health clinic was bombed killing people in the injured patient’s ward.

International calls to both sides to stop the fighting have fallen on deaf ears. The ICRC has been able to evacuate some 4,000 people in recent weeks, mostly severely wounded by Army bombing, but many more have been unable to get out, forcibly detained as a human shield by the LTTE. Civilians, as young as 12, have been forcibly conscripted by the LTTE in a desperate effort to fend off the military advance.

The Sri Lankan Army, seemingly unconcerned about the lives of the civilians massed in the area, has regularly used multi-barrel rocket launchers, aerial bombardment and snipers, which have resulted in heavy casualties. Heavy artillery is not supposed to be used near concentrations of civilians precisely because of the danger of civilian deaths.

Both sides have violated international humanitarian law with impunity.

In the past week, a breach in LTTE fortifications by the Army enabled an estimated 35,000 people to escape. Casualties during this period were heavy, with roughly a thousand people killed in the crossfire. The IDPs (Internally Displaced People) who have managed to get out of the war zone are being transported to guarded camps in Vavuniya and Jaffna. There is no freedom of movement in the camps, with even the elderly, injured and children interned at this time, for an indefinite period.

With some 100,000 people in recent weeks escaping the war zone, the camps are severely overcrowded and medical facilities overwhelmed by the large numbers of seriously wounded. Families have been separated en route, and have no way of re-uniting or even getting information about their loved ones. We hope the government of Sri Lanka will enable IDPs to reunite with family members and return to their homes as quickly as possible.

Prior to being taken to the camps, IDPs are screened at a series of checkpoints. This screening is done by the Sri Lanka military – no independent observers are allowed at the checkpoints near the battlefield, in fact, no independent journalists or observers have been allowed in the north since September of 2008. ICRC and UNHCR observers are now allowed at the screening checkpoints closer to the camps, but the problems being reported seem to be at checkpoints closer to the fighting.

We have received credible reports that large numbers of people who go for screening are not returned to the larger group. A history of disappearances and extra-judicial killings of Tamils by the Sri Lankan military over the years has led to fears that this is happening at these screening checkpoints. It is vitally important that the screening process at all levels be open to independent observers. Those suspected of being LTTE cadre should be processed in accordance with the law. It should also be remembered that many have been forcibly conscripted by the LTTE, especially in this recent fighting.

We have been calling on the US government to demand a stop to the fighting to enable civilians trapped in the conflict zone to escape. We ask that both parties respect international humanitarian law in the conflict. This is true also for the administration of the refugee camps. The government of Sri Lanka, as a government, has a particular responsibility to protect all of its civilians.

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