ICRC, Sri Lanka spar as India hands over relief (Lead)

November 20th, 2008 - 6:21 pm ICT by IANS  

Colombo, Nov 20 (IANS) India Thursday formally handed over to the international Red Cross nearly 1,700 tonnes of relief material meant for civilians displaced by war in Sri Lanka’s north, but a top government official insisted that Colombo alone would distribute the aid.Indian High Commissioner Alok Prasad handed over the gift certificate to Paul Castella, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Sri Lanka, at what the envoy said was “a simple but solemn occasion”.

Prasad said it was for distribution among the war-hit population and hoped that the goods “would help meet the humanitarian needs of the people”.

“This (Indian) consignment consists of food, clothing and personnel hygiene items, which have been packed individually into 80,000 family packs for easy distribution and to ensure that the assistance reaches directly to the intended recipients,” Prasad said.

Nearly 1,680 tonnes of relief materials, shipped into Sri Lanka in 100 containers, are now housed in the ICRC warehouse near Colombo, ready to be transported to the island’s north.

Thousands of civilians, almost wholly Tamils, have been displaced in fighting between the military and the Tamil Tigers.

Addressing reporters at the venue, Sri Lanka’s Commissioner General of Essential Service (CGES) S.B. Divaratne and ICRC’s Castella thanked India for its goodwill gesture, but openly contradicted each other on the issue of who will distribute the relief supply to the needy.

Claiming that “food, shelter as well as access to water, sanitation and health care are the most pressing needs that our staff in the Vanni could observe at present”, the ICRC official said his organisation intended to take the Indian donation “to the Wanni in the coming weeks”. Wanni is the area the Tamil Tigers are concentrated.

“The food, hygiene items and clothes donated by the Indian government will be distributed directly to civilians by the ICRC teams working in the Wanni to alleviate the suffering created by armed conflict,” he said.

However, Divaratne said the Government Agents (district collectors) would handle the distribution with the coordination and the monitoring of the ICRC.

“No foreign organisation can directly go and distribute food (to) anybody there, bypassing the government mechanisms,” he said.

Assuring that the relief assistance would “definitely reach” the affected people, he said the government in consultation with Government Agents “will facilitate the operation with the ICRC”.

“It is the Government Agents of the districts who know where people are displaced and living. It is a joint operation,” Divaratne said.

The consignment came as a follow up to a visit to New Delhi last month by Colombo’s special envoy Basil Rajapaksa when both sides decided that India would take part in providing humanitarian relief aid.

“I am happy to note that this substantial consignment has arrived in Colombo within three weeks of the two countries taking that decision. It is a combined effort of the government of India and donations received from the people of Tamil Nadu,” the Indian envoy said.

Claiming that it “is a gesture of goodwill and is intended to bring some relief to the civilians in the conflict areas”, Prasad said that India “is committed to providing humanitarian assistance”.

“We will evaluate the situation and what the needs and requirement are and we may bring additional consignment as required,” he said.

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