Distribution of Indian food to start in Sri Lanka

December 3rd, 2008 - 7:11 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Dec 3 (IANS) The distribution of nearly 1,700 tonnes of food and other relief material sent by India for civilians caught up in Sri Lanka’s war zone is set to begin despite heavy rains.The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is coordinating with Sri Lankan authorities as it reaches out to 40,000 distressed families each in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts, areas in the north the Tamil Tigers control.

The first of the trucks carrying the goods moved into the rebel zone Monday, and the distribution is to start “any time now”, Paul Castella, head of the ICRC mission in Sri Lanka, said over telephone.

“It will be happening tomorrow, day after, even today,” Castella, 45, told IANS. He said both Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were being kept informed.

“A total of 625 tonnes have been transported into the conflict area. Most of it has gone to Kilinochchi. We are continuing to send more and more trucks even as I am talking to you,” he said.

In November, following mass protests in Tamil Nadu, India shipped about 1,700 tonnes of relief material to Sri Lanka, saying ICRC will do the distribution.

The consignment - which Castella said was both “very large” and “very useful” - includes clothing for males and females, bed sheets, towels, hygiene items, rice, dal, tea and sugar.

“Aid sent by India is a very useful complement to what is already being distributed.”

Tamil activists have alleged food shortages after thousands were displaced following fierce clashes between the military and the LTTE. India decided to chip in after street protests in Tamil Nadu, which is separated from Sri Lanka by a strip of sea.

Castella said the Indian shipment, which reached Colombo and was stored in ICRC warehouses, was first trucked to Vavuniya, a Tamil majority town about 250 km north of Colombo.

He said the ICRC sought trucks from the Sri Lankan authorities to move the goods, first to Vavuniya and then to the war zone, “because it is so difficult to get so many trucks and drivers when you are going into conflict areas”.

Castella, who has been in Sri Lanka for only two months, said while Colombo was facilitating the operations, the ICRC supervised the distribution. “We are in control and in charge and accountable for it.”

He said the ICRC would identify the most needy families from the lists prepared by government agents (GAs) - equivalent to district magistrates. “Discussions are on between ICRC and GAs to select the right beneficiaries. Once they have been identified, the distribution will be done, again under the supervision of ICRC.”

Castella said he was happy with the progress of plans for distribution. “The huge logistical constraints have been overcome despite the heavy rains. Now the roads are a bit better because the water is receding.”

But he pointed out that there were problems concerning the changing entry and exit points of the war zone because of military advances against the LTTE.

Castella said initial objections raised by the Sri Lankan government to the ICRC-led distribution had been overcome.

“All that is completely settled. The ICRC is not used to distributing food in this country. It has never been doing this. I think the government was a bit surprised,” he said. “That created some misunderstanding. Since it is an exceptional case, I believe, it was easy to sort out the issues.”

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