Red Cross Barred From Sri Lankan Refugee Camp

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 21, 2009; 9:48 AM

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, May 21 -- The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday that its workers have been barred from the country's largest refugee camp and cannot distribute aid to or monitor the well-being of some 130,000 displaced residents.

The outspoken criticism by the normally discreet aid organization came a day after the United Nations pressed Sri Lanka's government to allow unfettered access to the war zone in the country's north. Aid groups must be able to evacuate any civilians still trapped in the north after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers rebel group earlier this week, officials said.

But Red Cross workers have not been allowed to enter Menik Farm, Sri Lanka's biggest refugee camp, since last weekend, the ICRC's deputy head of operations for South Asia, Monica Zanarelli, said in a statement posted on the agency's Web site.

"The restrictions have led to a temporary standstill in the distribution of aid to the camp," Zanarelli said. "The ICRC and other humanitarian aid agencies deplore this unacceptable situation, in particular because it is having a severe effect on the thousands of newly arrived displaced people who until very recently had to endure unimaginable hardship merely to survive in the conflict zone in the north-east."

The government did not immediately respond to the ICRC's requests or explain why the restrictions began.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka's resettlement camps and a battlefield on Saturday, said Wednesday that the condition of 280,000 Tamils displaced by the recent fighting was a matter of "grave and growing" concern.

"A good start would be to provide the U.N. and its partners with full, unconditional access to all civilians," Ban said.

While the country celebrated the end of its 26-year civil war by declaring Wednesday a national holiday, the human cost of the victory was still unfolding in the north, where an estimated 7,000 civilians have been killed and about 16,000 have been injured since fighting intensified in January. An estimated 80,000 people have fled the war zone in the past few days, many of them crowding into government-run camps.

"There are several issues that need urgent attention, including overcrowding and the limited services available at the camps," U.N. refugee agency spokesman Ron Redmond said in Geneva. "Civilians coming out of the conflict zone are sick, hungry and suffering from acute malnourishment and dehydration."

But a Sri Lankan spokesman denied the U.N.'s implication that the camps were inadequate and defended the government's restrictions on aid workers and journalists.

"These camps are not five-star hotels, but we are trying to accommodate the displaced people as best we can," said Lakshman Hulugalle, director general of the Defense Ministry's media center. "But we are not letting journalists and others go there to treat these people as if they were animals in a zoo."

In his strongest public comments since the war's end, outgoing U.S. Ambassador Robert Blake said the United States supports an investigation into alleged human rights abuses during the final phase of the conflict. Foreign ministers of the European Union have asked for an independent inquiry into allegations that both the Tamil rebels and government forces violated international human rights agreements.

"On the question of war crimes, we think it's important for the international community to have more information about what happened on both sides during the recent offensive in northern Sri Lanka," said Blake, who has been nominated by President Obama to be assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs.

Tamil leaders also asked for access to visit the camps where many of their constituents now live. The government has consistently underestimated the depth of the humanitarian crisis, said Suresh Premachandran, a Tamil leader and member of Parliament.

"Right now the international community is just making statements. They must use their leverage," Premachandran said. "The international community can play a strong role. They can tell the Sri Lankan government in very firm words, 'Look, if you are not going to protect your own citizens, we have the right to protect them.' "

Hulugalle said the government believes that rebel sleeper cells probably are hiding in several cities. Colombo remains heavily militarized, with some soldiers patrolling the capital on motorcycles and others manning dozens of checkpoints. Many residents fear that rogue Tamil Tigers are still capable of suicide attacks.

Despite the festive mood around the city on this newly declared holiday, Sri Lankan security forces said it was too early to let their guard down. Earlier Wednesday, troops killed eight suspected rebels as they allegedly prepared ambushes in Sri Lanka's east, the military said.

"The rebels have no more leaders, but still we have to be vigilant for the next two to three years," Hulugalle said.

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