SRI LANKA: Ferry service proves a lifeline
The ICRC and the Sri Lanka government have used ferries to transport injured civilians and their dependents out of the combat zones to Trincomalee port. They have also used the ferries to deliver essentials to endangered civilians
COLOMBO, 19 February 2009 (IRIN) - Sri Lankan authorities and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are employing a ferry service from the coastal village of Putumattalan, at the edge of a combat zone, to transport injured civilians to the eastern port of Trincomalee in the eponymous district. Putumattalan lies within a 12km no-fire zone declared by the government.
The ICRC has already evacuated 1,080 sick and wounded people and their dependents from the combat zone in three ferries with the navy since 10 February. ICRC officials in the capital, Colombo, said regular ferries would travel to Putumattalan to evacuate more sick and wounded civilians.
In addition, the government dispatched the first consignment of food supplies to the areas by ferry on 18 February, officials said
The ICRC said the naval link was now indispensible. "We did save lives today [with the ferry] but many people remain behind, helpless and anxiously waiting to be evacuated. It is now a matter of life and death," Paul Castella, ICRC delegation head in Sri Lanka, said in a statement
released on 18 February.
"More and more people are coming to Putumattalan," Sarasi Wijeratne, ICRC spokeswoman in Colombo, told IRIN. "There is a makeshift medical and triage facility there and we will keep arranging regular ferries to move sick and wounded out." She said the next ferry evacuation would take place on 20 February.
Supplies on the way
S B Divaratne, Commissioner General of Essential Services, the government official in charge of transporting supplies to the endangered civilians, said that two tugs with a capacity of 50MT each would be assigned to ferry supplies.
"We are sending nearly 50MT of flour, dhal, milk, food and sugar plus medicine provided by the Ministry of Health with the first consignment," he told a press conference on 18 February, the day the shipment arrived and was unloaded at Putumattalan. "The operations will be continued," he said, with the tugs flying the ICRC flag.
The UN said supplies to the areas of combat had to be continued to prevent the health of the trapped civilians deteriorating even further.
"Tens of thousands of civilians remain in the 'Vanni Pocket', including a large number of children. [The Vanni encompasses the two districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu and parts of Mannar and Vavuniya districts in the north.] The civilians are experiencing serious shortages of food, medicine, and clean water, and as a result increasing numbers are becoming ill," the UN country office in Sri Lanka said in a statement
released on 18 February. "It is imperative that these needs be met."
More than 30,000 civilians trapped within the areas of fighting have escaped behind army lines since mid-January, but the UN said others were being prevented from leaving. "The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE] continues to actively prevent people leaving, and reports indicate that a growing number of people trying to leave have been shot and sometimes killed."
Divaratne said the security situation had prevented overland supply convoys reaching the combat zone since 29 January. However, he said no acute shortages had been reported from within the combat zones in the Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu districts, despite the absence of supply convoys.
"Still we have to find an alternative route to provide food for the internally displaced people [IDPs] since road transportation is impossible."
The UN had estimated that 250,000 IDPs remained in the combat zone by the end of December 2008 before the latest exodus. The government has calculated the figure to be lower, at between 100,000 and 120,000. Heavy fighting has broken out in the area between government forces and the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry said the LTTE was cornered into an area of 140 sqkm by 13 February.