Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today announced that he will immediately send a United Nations humanitarian team to the shrinking conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka, calling for the mission to be allowed into the area as soon as possible.
The dispatch of the team to the five square-mile pocket of land where fighting rages between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was agreed upon recently between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mr. Ban’s envoy, Vijay Nambiar, who also serves as his Chef de Cabinet.
The purpose of the team will be to assess the situation and provide assistance to civilians, the Secretary-General told reporters today in Brussels.
“It is critical that this beam be allowed into the zone as soon as possible and I am asking for strong support and speedy assistance of the Sri Lankan Government,” he said, adding that, for its part, the LTTE must put down its arms and protect civilians.
“So many lives have been sacrificed and there is no time to lose,” Mr. Ban stressed, calling on the parties to respect the call issued by the Security Council yesterday, in which it urged both sides to respect international humanitarian law and allow aid agencies access those affected by fighting.
Yesterday’s statement, read out by Ambassador Claude Heller of Mexico, which holds the Council’s rotating monthly presidency, also strongly condemned the LTTE’s use of civilians as human shields and its actions that block people from leaving the conflict area.
The 15-member body also appealed to the Tamil rebels to “renounce terrorism, allow UN-assisted evacuation of remaining civilians in the conflict area and join the political process of dialogue in order to put an end to the conflict.”
Today, a senior UN relief official put the number of civilians still trapped in the conflict zone in the Vanni region at 50,000.
Catherine Bragg, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that the Government has reported that 103,000 people have left the area and are in transit to camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs)
“We hope that those numbers are accurate,” but the world body cannot verify them, she said at a press briefing in New York.
The most current information also points to 26,000 new arrivals at transit centres, as well as 95,000 IDPs seeking refuge in camps, up from 80,000 yesterday, Ms. Bragg said at a press briefing in New York.
She also underscored the need for extra camps to accommodate the expected influx of more than 100,000 people, noting that the UN has been pressing the Sri Lankan Government for additional sites and relocation of IDPs now in camps to live with host families.
“It is in the interest of the Government and the IDPs to be able to leave these camps as soon as possible,” Ms. Bragg said.
She emphasized that both the Government and LTTE are violating international humanitarian law regarding the protection of civilians, with heavy weapons being used in the so-called no-fire zone and the LTTE preventing people from fleeing the “very horrendous situation” in the region.
Also today, the UN issued an urgent plea for funds to meet the needs of IDPs who have fled the combat zone, with less than one-third of its $155 million appeal having been met to date.
The exodus of tens of thousands of people has stretched humanitarian and Government capacities, according to a statement issued by the world body’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka.
Many of those who escaped conflict “were forced from their homes more than a year ago, and it is something of a miracle that they have survived such a terrible ordeal,” said Neil Buhne. “We need to ensure that no more lives are lost by meeting their immediate needs, and beyond that to help them get back on their feet, so that they can eventually return to their homes.”
He said he recently saw first hand how relief teams are scrambling to provide assistance to “crowds of weary and hungry people.”
At camps at the town of Vavuniya which is housing most of the civilians who fled fighting, “I saw infants with dysentery, malnourished children and women, untended wounds, and people dressed in the ragged clothing they’ve been wearing for months,” Mr. Buhne said.
The funds requested by the UN are intended to cover the costs of basic needs, such as food, medicine, water, sanitation, shelter and clothing, and also to help put children back into school to “give them some semblance of normality.”