Clinton raises security fears for IDPs in north

International concern is growing over the security of tens of thousands of displaced people trapped in Sri Lanka’s northern combat zone where government forces are battling the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).



Both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed strong concern for the safety of civilians in the combat zones.



In a telephone conversation with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on 13 March, Clinton raised fears for the safety of civilians trapped within the narrow “safe zone”, according to a US State Department statement.



“Secretary Clinton called Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa to express the United States’ deep concern over the deteriorating conditions and increasing loss of life occurring in the Government of Sri Lanka-designated ‘safe zone’ in northern Sri Lanka,” Gordon Duguid, acting deputy spokesman, said in the statement. “The Secretary stated that the Sri Lankan Army should not fire into the civilian areas of the conflict zone.”



The 12km safe zone was declared by the government on 12 February and most civilians have moved into it. According to the UN, between 150,000 and 180,000 civilians remain trapped within areas of fighting between Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tigers. The Sri Lankan government estimates the number at 50,000-70,000.



Civilian safety



The government said Clinton had been appreciative of efforts taken by government forces to minimise civilian casualties.



“Speaking on current developments, Mrs Clinton appreciated the assurances given by the Secretary of Defence that civilians would not be subjected to any attacks by the military, stating the US looked forward to working with Sri Lanka once the current conflict ends,” the Sri Lankan government said in a statement released on 13 March.



Rajapaksa told Clinton the LTTE was forcibly preventing civilians from leaving areas of combat and that government forces were likely to soon gain full control of the narrow enclave still controlled by the LTTE.



The Defence Ministry said more than 1,600 civilians had escaped the fighting this weekend, with over 1,000 civilians escaping on 14 March alone.



Evacuations



The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had evacuated more than 3,500 sick and wounded civilians and their relatives from the combat zones by sea since February.



ICRC spokeswoman Sarasi Wijeratne told IRIN that a ship with 500MT tons of government food supplies, which was unable to unload its full cargo because of rough seas on 9 March, returned on 11 March and off-loaded all supplies.



The government had said the Tigers had shelled the ship while it was unloading cargo on 9 March. But the ICRC said that despite shells falling about 300m from the ship, it did not believe the vessel was targeted.



The ICRC, which had postponed a scheduled sea evacuation of civilians on 11 March due to a lack of security guarantees, successfully evacuated 406 injured civilians and their relatives the next day.



Doubt over figures



The Sri Lankan government also rejected civilian casualty figures quoted by Pillay. In statement released by her office on 13 March, Pillay said 2,800 civilians may have been killed and more than 7,000 injured since 20 January in the combat zone, many of them inside the safe zone.



“The current level of civilian casualties is truly shocking, and there are legitimate fears that the loss of life may reach catastrophic levels, if the fighting continues in this way,” the High Commissioner said.



The Sri Lankan government rejected the figures quoted by Pillay as “highly questionable, unverified and unsubstantiated”.



ap/bj/mw