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Q&A - What is fate of civilians trapped in Sri Lanka's war? (31 Mar 2009)


By C. Bryson Hull and Ranga Sirilal

Sri Lanka's military said on Tuesday that more than 1,800 people had fled the country's war zone the day before. Fears remain high for tens of thousands still trapped as the war with the Tamil Tiger separatists moves to a final fight.

Here are some questions and answers about their situation:

HOW MANY ARE TRAPPED?

According to the Red Cross, about 150,000 people, but the government says there are no more than 70,000. Nearly all are in a 25 sq km (10 sq mile) strip of coconut groves on the east coast. Aid agencies say medicine and clean water are in short supply, but the government is bringing in what it can by boats sailing under the flag of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). British-based Tamil groups say they will shortly send a ship with 500 tonnes of aid directly to the war zone, but the government says it will have to be offloaded in Colombo and that its agents will deliver the cargo.

HOW MANY HAVE ESCAPED?

About 61,600 since Jan. 1, the military says. They flow of civilians has been greatest in two periods. About half came out in a 10-day span that started when soldiers reached an old no-fire zone at the end of January. A second exodus has now kept up a steady pace and about 20,000 have fled since mid-March, despite heavy fighting between the Tigers and the army. At least 2,000 left on a single day last week, the most on any day so far.

HOW MANY HAVE BEEN KILLED OR WOUNDED?

No one knows for sure, but U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay earlier this month said more than 2,800 civilians had been killed and more than 7,000 injured since Jan. 20 and the conduct of both sides could amount to war crimes. The government has rejected the figures as unsubstantiated and says they tally closely with those on the pro-LTTE website www.TamilNet.com website. That amounts to propaganda, they say.

WHY HAVE THE REMAINDER NOT LEFT?

Aid agencies, rights groups and witnesses say the LTTE is forcing some civilians, including children, to fight or build defences. Those who try to flee are shot. The Tigers deny the allegations and say civilians have stayed because they fear persecution at army-guarded refugee camps. The U.N.'s top humanitarian official, Sir John Holmes, visited some camps last month and said they met standards, but urged greater freedom of movement for residents. The government says it needs time to separate the innocent from Tiger infiltrators.

WHAT RISKS DO THEY FACE?

Besides the threat of getting caught in crossfire or shelling, northern Sri Lanka is awash in land mines and booby traps. Doctors treating those who have been evacuated say their wounds are almost entirely from mines, gunshots and artillery. Health conditions in the no-fire zone are not good either because so many people are packed in a tiny area.

WHAT IS BEING DONE FOR THEM?

Diplomats are working furiously to get the Tigers to free people, and for the government to consider laying a siege once they encircle the no-fire zone, instead of crushing the Tigers.

The Tigers have so far rebuffed all entreaties and the government says it has already slowed down its offensive, and will guarantee safe passage for people on routes out of the no-fire zone.

(Editing by Valerie Lee)

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By Emergency: Sri Lanka
By Country: Sri Lanka
By Source: Reuters Foundation
By Type: News