What happens when the ultimatum expires?

In a few hours (2:30 A.M. New York time), the 24-hour ultimatum issued by the Sri Lankan military on Monday to the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (also known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers) expires.  The Tigers have been told to surrender or, according to a military spokesman, “Thereafter will be a military course of action.  That is the best option.”  I’m deeply worried, not for the Tigers but for the civilians trapped with them.

The Tigers are confined by the military in a small pocket of land in northeastern Sri Lanka.  It’s about twice the size of Central Park in New York.  It had been designated earlier as the “no-fire zone” by the Sri Lankan government, who had urged civilians trapped in the war zone to flee there as the government’s offensive was steadily shrinking the LTTE-held area over the past several months.

Trapped with the Tigers are thousands of civilians, who’ve been used by the Tigers as human shields and a source for forced recruitment.  What will happen to the civilians when the “military course of action” begins?

If you believe Reuters, the military will use snipers around the edge of the no-fire zone to pick off Tigers trying to block people from fleeing.  But will they be so careful?  It may depend on how many civilians are left in the no-fire zone.  We don’t know exactly how many there are.  As AI has reported, the Sri Lankan government has sealed off the conflict zone, denying aid workers and independent human rights observers access to the area.

The Sri Lankan military did have a dramatic success on Monday, reportedly breaching an earthen wall erected by the Tigers, which resulted in over 39,000 people fleeing to the government-held territory.  The government on Sunday had said that nearly 70,000 civilians had been held hostage by the LTTE.  So you would think that would leave about 30,000 or so?  But the Sri Lankan Army Chief was reported as saying on Monday that “only a few” civilians were left in the no-fire zone.  Does that mean the military won’t be so careful and will start using more indiscriminate tactics?  I certainly hope not.  Like UNICEF, I hope the worst is not yet to come in Sri Lanka.

Truce Over – Bloodbath Next?

The two-day truce called by the Sri Lankan government ended on Wednesday, with a Sri Lankan military spokesman saying military operations against the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers) had resumed.  But how do you carry out an offensive against an area of about 5 square miles (about twice the size of Central Park in New York) and containing at least 100,000 civilians, without causing massive civilian casualties?  John Holmes, the U.N. Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said in a press conference on Wednesday that the danger of a bloodbath was of great concern.  The French and British governments issued a joint statement urging President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka to announce a new pause in hostilities.

The civilians are being held in the war zone by the Tigers who won’t let them leave.  Holmes reported during his press conference that during the two-day pause in the fighting, actually fewer civilians had managed to flee the zone than previously and the LTTE was actively preventing them from doing so.  The Tigers must stop using the civilians as human shields and let them leave.  The Sri Lankan government must announce another pause in hostilities so the civilians can get out safely.