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U.N. dispatches top humanitarian to Sri Lanka
Sat Apr 25, 2009 8:12am EDT
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By C. Bryson Hull
COLOMBO (Reuters) - The United Nations dispatched its top humanitarian official to Sri Lanka on Saturday to push for more protection for civilians trapped in the last days of a 25-year war between the government and Tamil Tiger separatists.
U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes is due to arrive amid mounting pressure on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to surrender, and the government to halt its offensive to wipe out a foe it has fought since 1983.
"The top priority remains the preservation of the lives of the tens of thousands of civilians still trapped inside the combat zone," Holmes said in a statement. He last visited the Indian Ocean island in February.
International pressure is mounting about the welfare of the those held by the LTTE in fighting, and for the 109,000 who fled en masse after troops blasted an earthen barricade on Monday.
"The EU strongly condemns the killings of civilians and calls on all parties to take all necessary action to avoid further civilian casualties," the European Union said in a statement on Saturday, the latest of many similar appeals.
Internal United Nations tallies say nearly 6,500 have been killed in fighting since the end of January.
The LTTE has vowed no surrender and the government has rejected calls for any more breaks in the fighting, saying the Tigers have repeatedly manufactured civilian crises in the past to build pressure for truces they have then used to re-arm.
The surge of refugees threatens to overload the existing facilities to care for them, aid agencies have warned. Most have been living in makeshift shelters and suffering from minimal food, water and medical care for months.
HIDING IN TENTS
The U.N. refugee agency said on Friday it was flying in tents and other relief supplies, while France pledged a 500-bed mobile field hospital to help ahead of a visit by Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, which could come as early as next week.
Holmes was expected to travel to the main refugee centers in Vavuniya, and other locations, U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss said. It was not clear whether he would go to the war zone, Weiss said. Tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped in a tiny strip of coastline studded with coconut groves, a former army-declared no-fire zone that has become the final conventional battleground in Asia's longest-running war.
Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said the pace of combat had slowed due to the fact troops were now operating in a 10 square km (4 sq mile) area containing a sea of tents.
"They are hiding there in tents and staying in civilian clothes, and the moment troops close in, they start opening up," Nanayakkara said. "So we have to be very careful in making sure we neutralize them without harming civilians."
The U.N. Security Council on Friday urged the government to allow a humanitarian assessment team in, which Colombo has all but ruled out.
The Tamil Tigers meanwhile warned that thousands of people trapped in the war zone faced the possibility of starvation. The rebels have repeatedly refused to let people go and deny witness reports they are shooting at those who try to leave. Continued...
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