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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    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.
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    In this photo provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), displaced Sri Lankan ethnic Tamils are seen at a transit camp in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka. In the wake of the Sri Lankan military's defeat of the Tamil Tigers, the UN and aid groups such as the Red Cross are asking for access to war zones, 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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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.

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.

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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.

"The government has started over the past weekend to restrict access of humanitarian aid to the biggest IDP [internally displaced persons] camp, called 'Menik Farm', near Vavuniya," says Marçal Izard, ICRC's Geneva-based spokesman. "It is clear that we are very concerned about this current access problem, because there are tens of thousands of IDPs who just have been transferred to the camp recently, following their evacuation out of the battle zone days ago. Those people are especially vulnerable and need help now."

Mr. Samarasinghe denies there was any letup in relief access to relief camps. But he accepts that the war zone remains strictly out of bounds.

"We will only provide aid groups access to places where they have a role to play," he says.

Only the government has a role to play, he adds, in areas that have been recently "liberated" by the Sri Lankan military.

International observers argue that it needs urgent access to the former battle zone to not just check on civilians left behind but also to provide a safeguard against human rights violations, torture, and arbitrary detention for any remaining Tamil Tiger rebels.

"The government should accept the surrender of any LTTE fighter who wants to surrender and treat humanely LTTE fighters who have laid down their arms," said Mr. Zarifi from Amnesty International.

Samarasinghe rules out there are no remaining pockets of rebel fighters, but if there are any found, he assures the Sri Lankan government will be treated in accordance with international norms, only if they "willfully surrender."

"For many years, the Sri Lankan government has run a rehabilitation program for LTTE surrendees," he says. "They will be sent there."

But those who don't disarm "will be legitimately targeted."

The war zone has proved to be a dangerous place for those few aid workers who had access. Three ICRC staff have been killed on duty in the last two months alone.

Concerns also remain over the fate of three government-employed doctors who worked in the war zone and were scathing in their comments to the media about the government's indiscriminate shelling of hospitals there. The government has accused them of being propagandists for Tamil Tiger rebels. Their current whereabouts are not known.

"I believe they may be in the camps, but we haven't had any direct contact with them," said John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. "I would certainly urge the government to treat them [the doctors] properly."

As Sri Lanka steps into a critical post-war phase, and seeks international aid to rebuild the war-ravaged north, Dr. Paikiasothy says, the government ought to stop viewing aid workers and civil rights groups through the narrow "prism of traitors or patriots." Such an attitude will only stoke more suspicion and foment ethnic divides.

"Reconstruction as unity hasn't always worked in Sri Lanka," Lal Wickrematunge, the managing editor of the Colombo-based "The Sunday Leader" wrote in a column in the Indian Express. His brother, and the newspaper's founder, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was assassinated in January by unknown gunmen in Colombo.

The tsunami that struck Sri Lanka in 2004, he points out, did not discriminate between ethnicities, but the reconstruction effort did not unite the nation.

"One hopes Sri Lanka will not go down that road again," he wrote. "It cannot afford it."

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