A Donor-Co-chair-backed humanitarian operation, spearheaded by the United States, to evacuate civilians trapped in the fighting in the Wanni is now taking shape.
A high-level team of the United States Pacific Command (US PACOM) from their headquarters in Hawaii is now in Colombo for this purpose. The exercise, The Sunday Times learns, will involve US military assets, including those of the Air Force and the Navy. The purpose will be purely to facilitate the movement of civilians from the northeastern coast to a ship in the deep seas. This is for transfer to IDP centres or hospitals outside the battle zones.
Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama told The Sunday Time he was aware of the intended US led "coalition humanitarian task force" but could not give a date when it would be set up. He said yesterday that the Government was talking to member countries of the Donor Co-chairs on an individual basis."
Mr. Bogollagama added: "we are also talking to several other friendly countries for civilian evacuation.
They say they would always be comfortable with the direct involvement of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) carrying their flag with Government approval and supervision."
One such offer has come from India.
Their acting Prime Minister Pranab Mukherjee told Lok Sabha (Parliament) in New Delhi on Wednesday that his Government had formally offered assistance including logistic support to evacuate civilians caught up in the battle zone. He said the Sri Lanka Government had accepted the offer based on the fact that it was coming from a "friendly country."
Though the Government has accepted the humanitarian operation in principle, it is not immediately clear when the evacuation exercise will get under way. One of the factors the move hinges on, it is learnt, is the ground situation since the Army has now further intensified its military campaign to regain control of the remaining areas in the Mullaitivu district. Another is the finalisation and co-ordination of logistic details.
The initiatives of the Donor Co-chairs, consisting of the United States, Norway, Japan and the European Union, The Sunday Times learnt, has met with some initial difficulties. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has flatly rejected moves to allow the evacuation of civilians in the Mullaitivu district’s smaller areas which it is dominating. However, further contacts are under way.
In the light of serious concerns over civilian safety expressed by Donor Co-chairs as well as other countries and continued LTTE refusals, The Sunday Times learns, may force the Government to allow the humanitarian exercise to get under way notwithstanding LTTE objections.
However, such a move, highly placed defence sources said yesterday, would have to be after a close review of the ground realities.
In the past few days, troops had made more territorial gains.
The re-capture of Puthukkudiyiruppu, now the guerrilla nerve centre, was a matter of days, these sources said.
Estimates of the number of civilians trapped in the battle zones vary from 125,000 to 75,000. This week there have been more complaints from those working for international agencies of LTTE firing at civilians to prevent them from moving to the newly-created Safety Zone. It lay on a thin stretch of land flanked by a lagoon on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other.
Britain to back move against Lanka
The British Government has voiced its support for an earlier call by Mexico for a briefing on the situation in Sri Lanka at the UN Security Council.
Britain’s UN Ambassador John Sawers has told New York's Inner City Press that his government was calling for a briefing on Sri Lanka. This was after the return to New York of UN's humanitarian affairs chief, Sir John Holmes. He ended a visit to Colombo only yesterday. However, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's spokesperson Michelle Montas told reporters at Friday's noon briefing that Sir John would not be available for a Security Council briefing after his return.
He is to travel to Columbia.
In Colombo, last Wednesday, the Cabinet rejected for a second time, a move by the British Government to name its former Defence Secretary Des Browne as special envoy to Sri Lanka.
Earlier, Mexico's call for a Security Council briefing on the Sri Lanka situation was shot down by Russia.
The British envoy's remarks come as Sri Lanka is due to figure at a number of international fora in the coming week.
Tomorrow, the European Union's Foreign Ministers are expected to issue a strong statement on Sri Lanka. On Tuesday, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold hearings on developments in Sri Lanka. The US Government's annual Human Rights Report is also due to be released in a fortnight.