By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 29, 2009 10:12 AM
NEW DELHI, Jan. 29 -- The United Nations evacuated hundreds of wounded civilians from a war-torn section of Sri Lanka on Thursday as demands increased for the government and warring rebels to allow humanitarian aid to flow more freely in the country.
After being denied access for three days, a U.N. convoy was allowed to ferry up to 300 civilians, including 50 children, who had been injured in fighting over the past 10 days. The convoy had been prevented from crossing the front line of the conflict by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also called the Tamil Tigers, the U.N. said.
With fighting intensifying and civilians trapped, the International Committee of the Red Cross demanded on Wednesday that both Sri Lankan government troops and warring separatist rebels allow humanitarian workers into the war-shattered northeast of the South Asian island, where the organization estimates that a quarter of a million people are stuck inside rebel-held territory amid a still-unfolding war.
The United Nations and the ICRC said 250,000 civilians have fled to dense jungle terrain where fighting is raging in the 115 square miles still controlled by the Tamil Tigers.
Sri Lanka on Thursday rejected the Red Cross statement, saying that the number of civilians at risk is far lower, and that the rebels were to blame for any difficulties in delivering aid or evacuating the wounded.
"The fact that Geneva seems oblivious to all this suggests either willful ignorance or naivete," said Rajiva Wijesinha, a senior government official, in a statement on the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense Web site. "It is true that the I.C.R.C. code of operation demands neutrality. Neutrality, however, demands objectivity in analysis and reporting, not generalizations that portray the government in a negative light."
The Associated Press quoted a government health official Wednesday saying that witnesses reported the deaths of 250 to 300 civilians in fighting over the past week. The official also said that hospital records showed that more than 1,100 were wounded. Those figures could not be verified, but aid workers are alarmed about conditions in the region, where a 25-year-old conflict is being fought almost entirely outside the view of the world because of government-restricted access to the front lines.
"There are rising concerns about clean drinking water and medicines and shelter. Because combat operations are ongoing, the actual safe space is diminishing quickly," Sarasi Wijeratne, an ICRC information officer in the country's capital of Colombo, said in a telephone interview. "We're most worried about the sick and wounded. There hasn't been a regular flow of aid into the area for a while now."
In an example of the increasing human toll of the government's promises to wipe out the Tamil Tigers this year, the United Nations said dozens of its workers and their families came under heavy artillery fire over the weekend when they sought refuge inside the government-declared "safe zone" for Tamil civilians. They say the shelling was carried out by government forces, a claim the government denies. The government pledged on Wednesday not to launch attacks inside the "safe zone."
The war has taken an estimated 70,000 lives and is one of Asia's longest-running conflicts, inflaming long-standing ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese ethnic group, whose members are predominantly Buddhist, and the minority Tamils, who are mainly Hindus and Christians. The Tamil Tigers are demanding a separate homeland in the north and east of the country.
The government on Wednesday vehemently rejected claims that its troops were firing into the area during the offensive to drive the Tigers out from the northeast.
"If they came under fire, then definitely it has been done by the LTTE," said Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman.
The ICRC plea came on the same day that the Indian government pressured Sri Lanka to make sure the civilians trapped by the fighting will be protected.
During an unscheduled emergency trip to the country, India's foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, met with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who vowed during election campaigning to crush the Tamil Tigers' military campaign for good.
Sri Lanka's minority Tamil and largely Hindu community in the war-rattled northeast have deep commercial, ethnic and religious ties to neighboring India. An estimated 56 million Tamils live in India, most in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
"We are concerned with the civilians. I requested to the president to take care of these civilians," Mukherjee told reporters Wednesday.
There have been many wide-scale street protests in Tamil Nadu with Tamils protesting the Sri Lankan government's recent onslaught and India's lack of response. In recent weeks, a regional Tamil party, which is a key ally of the ruling coalition led by the Congress party, has threatened to pull out if the security of Tamils in Sri Lanka is not ensured.
Sri Lanka's government estimates the Tigers have only 1,000 fighters left after the Jan. 2 fall of Kilinochchi, the rebel's political and administrative headquarters. But still at large is Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, who is known for his tight control of his forces and for his expertise in guerrilla warfare. Some Sri Lankan experts who have studied the war say that small-scale fighting could continue for months and estimate that up to 3,000 rebels are hiding in the undeveloped and dense northern jungle.
Even those who wanted an end to the war in Sri Lanka, once a tourist destination of surfing beaches and lush green hills, say that recent events have darkened any military victory.
"The entire country is crying, now," said Dinesh D'Silva, an apparel businessman and peace activist in Colombo, who said the economy of the picturesque, palm-fringed Indian Ocean island has come to a complete standstill. "It's been 25 years and some of us don't think it will ever end in a good way. So many have suffered. We won't heal quickly."