Risks to civilians still “extremely high” - top UN official

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes told IRIN there were still tens of thousands trapped in a pocket of fighting in northeastern Sri Lanka: “There may be as many as 50,000 or possibly even more people still left there," adding that heavy weapons were still being used by both sides.

"The risks to these people are extremely high. That is our main concern."

To address that, efforts are now under way to dispatch a humanitarian team to the combat area to assess the situation and enable more aid to get in.

"We have an agreement in principle with the government of Sri Lanka, but it hasn't happened yet," Holmes said. "The conditions need to be created to make that possible," he said.

Since 20 April, about 140,000 Tamil civilians have fled combat areas in the north, government sources say, leaving international and Sri Lankan relief agencies in government-controlled areas struggling to cope.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 80,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) were already being accommodated in various sites, primarily schools, in and around Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna districts.

Meanwhile, fighting was being reported in the village of Valayanmadam in Mullaitivu District, with civilians being moved to the south of the conflict zone,” OCHA said.

Appeal shortfall

As aid workers grapple with the growing number of displaced, OCHA reports that aid agencies have received less than one third of the US$155 million appealed for in February to meet an anticipated increase in the number of people fleeing the conflict.

Although food is relatively well-funded, other sectors such as health, water and sanitation, shelter and education are significantly under-funded.

"I think that donors will respond now," Holmes said, noting, however, that funding was also connected to conditions inside the camps or sites where those who have fled are now staying.

"We have to be sure that the camps and the conditions in which people are being held over time correspond properly to international standards and principles in order for the funding for us to be there," he said.

Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said on 24 April that the government was expecting another 15,000-20,000 civilians still in the conflict area to come out.