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Sri Lanka: dispute over how to help civilians in war zone

Caution is guiding the international response as fighting intensifies between the government and the rebels.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2009

AID: A Sri Lankan Navy medic with an injured Tamil baby. The Red Cross evacuated about 450 Tamils from a rebel area Monday.




As fighting between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels intensifies in northeast Sri Lanka, calls to spare as many as 180,000 trapped civilians are growing. But in the debate over how far to push a warring government, caution is guiding the international response.

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Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced "deep concern" to Sri Lanka over rising civilian casualties in a government-designated no-fire zone. The Red Cross, which normally prefers quiet persuasion to arm-twisting, has raised the alarm over a humanitarian crisis in the remaining pocket of rebel-held territory, where makeshift hospitals are out of needed drugs and food supplies are dwindling.

But this outcry has failed to sway Sri Lanka's government, which dismisses its critics as biased and reliant on propaganda from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has fought a bloody war for self-rule since 1983. Government officials defend the military's conduct in pushing back the rebels and say the onus is on the LTTE to let civilians flee the conflict, not use them as shields or force them to fight.

Behind the diplomatic exchanges are divisions within the international community over the proper response to apparent violations of international law by both sides. Far from pressing hard for action, some United Nations officials have muffled internal reporting from the war zone, to the frustration of aid workers and human rights activists who accuse the UN of cowardice in the face of a belligerent government.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay broke ranks on Friday. In a stern statement, she said that 2,800 civilians may have died and more than 7,000 been injured since Jan. 20. Most of these casualties occurred in the 7-1/2-mile-long no-fire zone and were the result of Army shelling. Certain actions by the warring parties "may constitute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law."

"The current level of civilian casualties is truly shocking, and there are legitimate fears that the loss of life may reach catastrophic levels, if the fighting continues this way," she said.

Sri Lankan officials promptly denied the allegations. Minister of Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe criticized the use of "unsubstantiated statistics" in an "unprofessional statement," and questioned why the data were similar to those used by pro-LTTE websites.