02/05/2009, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Apostolic nuncio: priests will stay with people in conflict zone

by Melani Manel Perera
22 priests and 27 sisters live in the northern districts where the war is being fought. The defense ministry is asking that they be evacuated, and is not guaranteeing the safety of civilians who remain in the area of fighting. The government rejects the proposal of the United States and Great Britain to negotiate the surrender of the Tamil Tigers.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - "The Catholic priests will always remain and work with the people, they will never abandon them." Archbishop Mario Zenari, the apostolic nuncio in Sri Lanka, has replied to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who wants to evacuate the religious from the area of fighting, to the buffer zone under government control.

In the area of fighting between the army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), there are 22 priests and 27 sisters caring for the refugees from the region of Vanni. The religious are from the northern dioceses, and belong to various orders: the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Holy Family Sisters, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the Good Shepherd Sisters, and the Missionaries of Charity.

As a sign of solidarity with the clergy and faithful of Jaffna, on February 5 the nuncio visited the diocese in which, for nine days, laypeople and religious have been taking turns with hunger strikes and constant prayer for the victims of the war, and for peace in the country.

The defense ministry in Colombo has called upon the population to go to the area situated behind highway A35, under the protection of the army, and states that "as civilians who do not heed this call will be among LTTE cadres, the security forces will not be able to accept responsibility for their safety."

The International Committee of the Red Cross and humanitarian organizations are denouncing the growing number of dead and injured among the civilians, and the government is continuing to deny media access to the conflict zone.

The army says that the area under the control of the rebels has now been reduced to 210 square kilometers. The government has also refused the request to negotiate the surrender of the Tigers presented on February 3 by the United States, Great Britain, Japan, and Norway. Defense Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa says that the only solution is the "unconditional surrender" of the LTTE, and recalls that "over the past week, when the government declared 48 ceasefires, the rebels used the time to carry out suicide attacks on the front, with three trucks full of explosives."

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