UN completes relocation from Tamil Tiger areas

UN agencies have relocated all international staff and offices from areas under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north to areas under government control, with the last convoy of UN vehicles leaving on 16 September.

"The convoy left in the morning and was assured safe passage through areas they control by the Tigers and also through areas where there is now fighting by the Sri Lankan forces," Gordon Weiss, UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, told IRIN.

The convoy included staff and vehicles from other international humanitarian agencies that worked in Tamil Tiger-held areas in the central-northern area of Sri Lanka, known as the Vanni.

The Sri Lankan government issued a directive on 5 September that the security of the agencies and staff could not be guaranteed in the Vanni due to the deteriorating security situation.

Public protests

However, the process had to be suspended from 12 to 15 September when protesters blocked the only access road out of the Vanni.

On 12 September, demonstrators gathered near the offices of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and World Food Programme (WFP) in Kilinochchi town, 300km north of the capital Colombo, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) said in a situation report released on 15 September. 

"Negotiations with the protesters failed to enable the departure of a small convoy of INGO/UN vehicles that were scheduled to leave," the IASC report stated. The protests continued until 15 September.

UN officials held discussions with the Tamil Tigers after the protests to secure safe passage. On 15 September the office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka said in a statement that it had received assurances from the Tigers for staff to travel out of Vanni safely the next day. It also highlighted that the security situation was too unstable for them to continue remaining in the Vanni. 

"We reiterate that we have been compelled to temporarily relocate from Kilinochchi because of our security assessment that the situation has become too dangerous to remain working from there at this time," the UN stated.



Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN
Fighting has been nearing the A9 highway, which runs across the Vanni

Weiss told IRIN that fighting and shelling had been reported on the highway used by the convoys to leave the Vanni the previous day. "There was shelling and fighting very close to the A9 [highway on 15 September]," he said.

Security fears

"We need to be mindful of what we do, when, where and how in a militarised zone," Jeevan Thiyagaraja, executive director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), a national umbrella body of local and international humanitarian agencies, told IRIN. "There is an element of physical risk in the current situation."

Representatives of international relief organisations working in the Vanni were planning a fact-finding trip to plan how to provide relief assistance effectively in the future, he said.

UN and other humanitarian agencies will be based in the northern town of Vavuniya, about 60km south of Kilinochchi for their operations in the Vanni.

Weiss said the UN was prepared to ensure supplies and humanitarian work in the Vanni continued from its offices in Vavuniya. The location has been developed as a humanitarian operations hub.

"We are prepared to keep supplies moving to the Vanni and assist the government's humanitarian work for civilians in the Vanni and those who come out. We share the concern for the welfare of the growing number of people displaced."

According to CHA, 13 organisations, including UN agencies, were working in the Vanni with 534 employees when the directive to pull out was received. The majority of staff members are locals living within the Vanni, who did not relocate.

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