08/14/2008, 00.00
SRI LANKA

Thousands of refugees living in the woods; army is blocking aid

Melani Manel Perera
More than 75,000 people have been made refugees since June, while fighting intensifies between the army and the Tamil Tigers. The army is blocking humanitarian aid, claiming that it is going to the rebels. Bishop of Mannar: the safety of the population must be guaranteed, and their food needs must be met.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - According to official figures from the United Nations, more than 75,000 people have fled their homes in the north of Sri Lanka over the last two and a half months. To these must be added the many already displaced over years of fighting. The area controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is a battlefield where the population is fleeing from one place to another, and where it is even difficult to bring aid from humanitarian organizations.

The National Peace Council (NPC), a group that works for the rights of all the communities and seeks a peaceful solution to ethnic problems, explains that it is above all the army blocking the sending of aid to the people, out of fear that the supplies are going to the LTTE. Thousands of people are living outdoors, under the trees.

"We hold that the welfare of the civilian population must not be compromised by military exigencies", the NPC says. "They must be safeguarded from collateral damage and not be used as human shields in any circumstance. We call on the government not to use its air and artillery power to attack areas in which civilians are residing". "We also call for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor, with the cooperation of UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, whereby people who wish to leave the areas of combat are permitted by both the government and LTTE to do so in accordance with the basic human right of freedom of movement. The people who leave the areas of combat should also be treated with respect and dignity, and permitted freedom of movement, without being confined to welfare camps as occurring at present at Kalimottai and at Sirukandal, as pointed out by Bishop Joseph in his statement".

The government says it has proof that most of the humanitarian aid for civilians has been taken by the LTTE. Meanwhile, the army is gaining ground and retaking villages: yesterday, it took Mulankavil, described by the defense minister as a "Tamil Tiger stronghold".

The bishop of Mannar, Jospeh Rayappu, has asked the government to study how it can guarantee security and safety for civilians in the northern part of the country, and permit the United Nations and humanitarian groups to bring them the food they need. He is also asking that a "neutral zone" be set up in each of the three districts where fighting is underway, a proposal that has been seconded by the NPC.

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