04/22/2009, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Wave of refuges fleeing combat zone continues

by Melani Manel Perera
Military sources speak of 100,000 people. For the Red Cross the situation is close to a disaster. Father Sebamalai, parish priest in Vavuniya, says that ten schools in the town have been turned into relief centres for refugees, who only have the clothes on their back. Residents are organising to help the displaced, but only the military can go in and out of relief centres.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – “In Vavuniya alone ten schools are full of refugees after being turned into relief centres. They need more clothes and other essential items. All they have now is what they have on their backs after fleeing,” said Fr Anthony Sebamalai, who spoke to AsiaNews by phone. Parish priest at St Anthony’s Church in Vavuniya, he described the situation in the northern part of the island as dramatic.

According to military sources, after its assault against Tamil rebels’ line of defence, more than 100,000 people fled through the Nanthi Kadal lagoon. But “the flow of refugees did not start Monday and Tuesday,” Father Sebamalai said. “People fled with the clothes they had on their back and left all their meagre belongings behind.”

Pierre Krähenbühl, operational director of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said that the situation is close to a disaster, and needs exceptional preventive steps to limit further bloodshed in the no-fire zone.

“My parishioners like all the other residents of the Vavuniya are collecting food, clothes and everything refugees might need and giving them to army officers because no one can be directly involved with refugees,” Father Sebamalai said.

The clergyman said he was able to visit only two camps for Internally Displaced People (IDP) during the last ceasefire on Sinhalese and Tamil New Year.

Fr Anthony Victor Soosai, vicar general for the diocese of Mannar, said that he is “ready to visit displaced people with other priests as soon as it is possible.”

“I can only tell you about the situation after I make the visit,” he told AsiaNews.

Caritas officials said the same. At present they are trying to organise the best way to respond to the deteriorating situation caused by the sudden influx of refugees.

Conversely humanitarian workers from local NGOs are not talking to avoid government criticism and the possibility that they might be prevented from helping the refugees.

Defence Ministry sources in Colombo said that military operations are intensifying.

Army sources said its forces killed two Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leaders and taken into custody the group’s former spokesman in charge of media relations after he surrendered.

The military are concerned that the LTTE’s supreme leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, might escape via the sea. Sri Lankan Navy vessels are patrolling the coastline. So far they boarded 92 ships with 1,500 civilians on board. 

Rebels have blamed Sri Lanka’s military of killing about a thousand civilians during yesterday’s operations.

The army in turn has accused Tamil fighters of using civilians as human shields and “spreading false news to avoid their imminent defeat.”

Since the combat zone is closed off to local and foreign media, no one has been able to verify the different versions of events.

The Red Cross noted that the combat zone is very small, less than 20 kilometres, and that this makes it harder for civilians to escape the fighting.

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