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Sri Lanka: War-zone access becomes flash point

Despite the government's declaration of victory, the area remains off limits, raising concerns about human rights violations and getting aid to civilians.

By Anuj ChopraCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 20, 2009

This photo released by the Sri Lankan government shows what the army says are civilians fleeing from the area inside the 'No Fire Zone' on May 15, which at the time was still held by Tamil Tiger rebels. As the Sri Lankan government basks in newfound victory, United Nations and other aid agencies are clamoring for open access to the war zone.

Sri Lankan Government/Reuters

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Pune, India

As the Sri Lankan government basks in newfound victory against Tamil Tiger rebels, United Nations and other aid agencies are clamoring for unfettered access to the war zone, something they say is crucial to aid the wounded and to lay the groundwork for rebuilding trust in the divided nation.

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The former theater of war in northeastern Sri Lanka has been out of bounds for aid workers for months, with the Sri Lankan government only granting sporadic access to the International Committee of the Red Cross permission to supply food aid and to evacuate the injured.

"The international community must require the prompt deployment of international monitors to be stationed in critical locations, including registration and screening points, displacement camps, and places of detention," says Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia Pacific director.

In recent months, as the military aggressively went after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), determined to crush the three-decade-old insurgency, this has largely been a war without witness. Journalists, independent observers, and aid groups have been persistently denied access to the region. Even now, with the government having announced victory against the rebels this week, the region still remains inaccessible, raising concerns for the fate of those civilians who have remained behind or are too sick or injured to flee.

"There's only one thing you can surmise from this," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives. "The government doesn't want the world to see what happened there – or is currently happening there."

According to United Nations estimates, more than 7,000 people have been killed since January alone, and aid groups are pressing for unfettered access to provide aid to 265,000 people, including 80,000 children.

Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka's minister of human rights, said in an telephone interview that 52 accredited nongovernmental aid organizations, national and foreign, have been given access to about 41 relief camps in northern Sri Lanka.

"The government is working in relief camps side by side with these aid groups," he says.

But the International Committee of the Red Cross denies it has had free access.