Red Cross: Sri Lankan war zone a "humanitarian catastrophe"

The International Committee of the Red Cross today described the Sri Lankan war zone as “an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe.”  For the third consecutive day, the ICRC has been unable to evacuate seriously wounded or ill patients and deliver desperately needed food, due to ongoing combat in the area.  The U.N. reported today that fighting between government forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers was continuing with heavy casualties in the war zone, which is about the size of Central Park in New York.  The U.N. has continued its high-level involvement; it was announced that Secretary-General’s chief of staff would be sent to Sri Lanka to try to help resolve the humanitarian situation.

Despite statements by President Obama and the UN Security Council yesterday on the crisis, neither the Sri Lankan government nor the Tigers have agreed to a pause in the fighting in order to allow civilians to leave the war zone safely and to allow aid into the area.  Instead, both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers appeared to welcome the parts of the statements that criticized the other side without agreeing to the commitments being asked of them.  The only good news I saw was a statement by the Sri Lankan government that over 3,300 civilians had escaped from the war zone today.

The Sri Lankan government has been engaged in a military offensive to reconquer territory held by the Tigers, which has been fighting for an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  The military has now confined the Tigers to a small pocket of land in northeastern Sri Lanka.  Trapped with the Tigers are an estimated 50,000 or more civilians, who are being used by the Tigers as human shields and not allowed to leave the conflict area.

AI has called for an international commission of inquiry to investigate violations of international law by both sides.  The British government today supported that call.

We urgently need both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers to halt the fighting, in order to allow civilians to leave the war zone and aid to get into the area.  Both sides should understand that the world is watching and they’ll be held to account for their actions.

Sri Lanka: a question of credibility

If we’re to believe the Sri Lankan military, they’ve killed no civilians during their offensive against the opposition Tamil Tigers in recent months.  They claim that the security forces have only killed Tiger fighters.  However, the military itself admitted that it’s become harder to distinguish between civilians and the Tigers, since the Tigers have, according to the military, shed their uniforms for civilian clothes.  AI has reported that the military has used heavy artillery in indiscriminate attacks causing civilian casualties.  The Sri Lankan government doesn’t help its credibility in making these kinds of claims.

The Tigers can’t exactly lay claim to great credibility either, though.  They announced a unilateral ceasefire a week ago but last Thursday, said that their gunboats had attacked the Sri Lankan navy.  What happened to their ceasefire?  The Tigers yesterday said today that they were ready to engage in a process to bring about a ceasefire; if that happened, would the Tigers observe it anymore than the one they announced themselves?

I’m grateful that the Sri Lankan military hasn’t yet launched an all-out offensive to reconquer the remaining Tiger-held territory, since I can’t see how they could do that without causing massive casualties among the estimated 50,000 civilians trapped by the Tigers in the war zone.  There are a number of steps each side should take immediately, if we’re to avoid these casualties.  The steps are laid out in an urgent action appeal issued by AI last Friday.  Please read that appeal to see what AI is calling for from both sides.  Please also consider writing to the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE as the appeal requests.

One final note:  today is World Press Freedom Day and J.S. Tissainayagam remains unjustly imprisoned in a Sri Lankan prison simply for his journalistic activities.  Please visit the AIUSA website and write to the Sri Lankan government on his behalf.  He should be released immediately and unconditionally.

Rising civilian casualties, "catastrophic" situation

A day after my last post, what’s the situation of the estimated 100,000 civilians trapped in the war zone in northeastern Sri Lanka?  AI stated today that more than 4,500 civilians have died in the fighting in recent days, with hundreds of civilian casualties reported on Monday alone.  The International Committee of the Red Cross said today that the situation for the civilians trapped in the government-designated “no-fire zone” (which is the last remaining area controlled by the opposition Tamil Tigers) was “nothing short of catastrophic.”  Not only are the civilians being killed or wounded by every rocket or mortar fired, but they haven’t been receiving sufficient food or medical supplies, and so face growing threats of deaths from epidemics, malnutrition and lack of medical treatment.

Hours after Monday’s ultimatum given by the Sri Lankan army to the Tigers to surrender or face military action expired, the Tigers said they would never surrender.  The Sri Lankan army attacked the “no-fire zone” today and reportedly cut it in two.

The Sri Lankan government and the Tigers must immediately cease hostilities and agree to a temporary truce, so that civilians can leave the “no-fire zone” safely and aid supplies can be provided to those in the zone unable or unwilling to leave.  Both sides must immediately stop any attacks against civilians.

If you haven’t already written the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers, please visit the AIUSA website and do so today.   We need every voice.  Thanks.