Civilians evacuated by sea from combat zone

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) organised the second seaborne transport in three days on 12 February to evacuate 140 wounded and sick civilians from the combat zones in northern Sri Lanka, its officials said.

"The ferry has arrived at Putumattalan, where the civilians remain today [12 February] in the morning and we will start moving the patients to it," Sophie Romanens, ICRC communications coordinator in Sri Lanka, told IRIN.

The ICRC had earlier evacuated 240 wounded and sick patients from Putumattalan on 10 February by sea. The evacuees were relocated from the Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital on 4 February to a makeshift medical facility at a community centre in the coastal village.

The Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital was hit by shell fire between 1 and 3 February, killing nine civilians and injuring at least 20 others, according to the ICRC.

The ICRC said it did not yet have details of how many men, women and children were among the evacuees or the number of critical cases. No deaths were reported to ICRC during the first evacuation.

The evacuees "are expected to reach Trincomalee [a port city in the government-controlled area] later this evening", Romanens said.

ICRC staff

Romanens said three ICRC expatriate staff members who had remained inside the battle zone to assist the injured had travelled out of the area with the second ferry evacuation.

"We will have to decide later on whether they will return [to the conflict zone] or not," she told IRIN. At least 130 local ICRC staff members remain inside the area. The ICRC is the only international agency with a permanent presence inside the zone in the Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu Districts, about 300km north of the capital Colombo.

UN and other international agencies relocated out of the combat zone in September 2008, following a government directive amid deteriorating security. Fighting between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has intensified since December 2008 and according the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry, the LTTE is now cornered in an area of about 159 sqkm.

Thousands flee fighting

Since 6 February at least 22,000 civilians escaped the fighting and crossed behind army lines, according to its figures. The UN estimated there were 250,000 civilians trapped by the fighting before the latest exodus. Government estimates have been lower at between 100,000 and 120,000.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said 13,000 civilians were housed in welfare centres in Vavuniya District, south of the areas of fighting. In a statement released on 10 February, UNHCR said 5,000 civilians were on the move and were expected in Vavuniya soon. 

"UNHCR and its partners are prepared to meet the immediate needs of up to 150,000 civilians fleeing from the conflict zones of Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu Districts," it said.

"UNHCR has finalised a strategy on protection and emergency assistance for the new arrivals and is carrying out daily relief work at internal displacement and transit sites."