Friday, January 23, 2009

UN concerned for safety of Sri Lankan civilians

Ravi Nessman

The United Nations expressed growing concern Friday for the safety of tens of thousands of children and other civilians trapped in the war zone in northern Sri Lanka and called on the Tamil Tiger rebels to let them leave.

The move came amid reports that scores of civilians have been killed by government artillery and rocket attacks on the rebel-held areas in recent days.

"At the moment, we have a very large number of people, including tens of thousands of children, trapped in a fast shrinking area," UNICEF's country representative Philippe Duamelle said. "They have poor access to shelter, health care and water and sanitation, and as the conflict lines get closer to them they are more and more exposed to the fighting."

Human rights groups have accused the rebels of using the hundreds of thousands of civilians reported trapped in the area as human shields against the government's offensive.

Duamelle said both sides must make every effort to avoid civilian casualties and appealed to the rebels to let the local population move out of harms way.

Fighting continued Friday, as Sri Lankan fighter jets and attack helicopters pounded Tamil Tiger positions across the war zone in support of advancing ground forces, the military said.

The rebel-affiliated Web site TamilNet said three civilians were killed and 33 wounded when army troops fired multi-barrel rocket launchers into civilian settlements in the rebel-held territory. The site also said insurgents killed 40 government soldiers.

Health officials in the rebel-held area reported Thursday that the military had shelled a hospital and a village inside a government-declared "safe zone" for displaced families, killing at least 30 people. Health officials said at least 67 civilians were killed in shelling since Tuesday.

The military denied firing into the civilian settlements and launching attacks on the "safe zone" and accused the rebels of carrying out the assault themselves to keep the civilians out of the area.

Rebel spokesman were not available for comment, but have denied the accusation in the past.

Independent accounts of the fighting are not available because reporters are barred from the war zone.

The government has vowed to crush the rebel group and end the quarter-century civil war in this Indian Ocean island nation. In recent weeks troops have forced the rebels out of much of their heartland in the north, boxing them into a small corner of the northeast, the military said.

The rebels have fought since 1983 to establish an independent state for minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of successive governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.

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