Sri Lanka wants international help as thousands flee war-zone (Lead)

April 23rd, 2009 - 6:53 pm ICT by IANS  

By P. Karunakharan
Colombo, April 22 (IANS) Sri Lanka Thursday appealed for international assistance to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to over 103,000 civilians who have fled the war-zone in the island’s north since Monday, and said “we face an emergency humanitarian situation”.

Hailing the security forces for successfully carrying out “the largest hostage rescue operation by any military in the world”, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said that an estimated 15,000-20,000 civilians are still trapped in the no-fire-zone (NFZ), which is under the control of the Tamil Tigers.

“Today (Thursday) I made an appeal to the international community to assist us in helping these IDPs,” Bogollagama told reporters Thursday, adding that the challenge before the government now is to provide shelter and other basic amenities to them.

Stating that the immediate needs of the IDPs has been identified, he said that Colombo has “already received pledges of support from various countries including the US, India, Australia and institutions, including the UN, in this regard”.

“With the unprecedented influx of large numbers of people in such a short period of time, obviously we do face an emergency humanitarian situation, and our friends in the international community are most welcome to provide emergency relief assistance, initially by way of semi-permanent shelter, water purification plants, sanitation facilities and medical assistance,” Bogollagama said.

According to the military, over 103,000 civilians have fled the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) held areas since Monday morning and entered the government-controlled areas despite desperate efforts by the Tigers to prevent them from leaving.

The defence ministry said that the Tigers are now boxed in a small area “with army 55 Division approaching at them from the north and the 58 Division from the west”.

“All along we have been waiting for the day when we can say that the LTTE is defeated and the civilians are free. Today is the day. It is a historic day,” Bogollagama said.

“The end game that is being played out on the muddy waters on the western edge of the no-fire-zone along the Mullaitivu coast portends the death knell for the LTTE,” he said.

He claimed that the army has entered the NFZ at Puthumathalan and effectively bisected it, confining the LTTE to the southern part.

Addressing the media after briefing the Colombo-based diplomatic Heads of Mission, Bogollagama said the government believed that there are “15,000-20,000 people still trapped in the no-fire-zone lying in the LTTE-held small strip of coastal land. This is an assessment based on the military intelligence gathering”.

He said even Daya Master, former LTTE media coordinator who surrendered to the troops Wednesday, has confirmed this figure.

He said that the mass exodus civilians in thousands “is a fitting reply to certain sceptical members of the international community who, obviously misguided by Tiger propaganda, have been making persistent predictions of massive civilian casualties, in the event our security forces embarked on the rescue mission”.

Bogollagama has told the diplomats that the “core aim of the government remains to re-settle all those who have been displaced due to the conflict in their original places of habitation”.

“The government’s sincere desire is to see through this process as expeditiously as possible. However, practical constraints remain. Vast areas previously inhabited by these civilians have been heavily mined by the LTTE, before they fled the assault of the army,” he told them.

In order to expedite the resettlement programme of the IDPs, Bogollagama said that the government “urgently requires assistance in mine clearance, as well as in the rebuilding of the war shattered infrastructure in the areas of conflict in the north”.

“The question of access whether it be for humanitarian aid agencies or media keeps surfacing. INGOs (International non government organisations) are assisting the welfare villages and access is dependent primarily on the security situation on the ground. Also the government does not wish to encourage IDP tourism by allowing unstructured visits to the welfare villages,” he said.

Bogollagama, however, stressed that 14 INGOs and UN Agencies are actively supporting the efforts of the government to provide the basic needs and essential services for the civilians presently accommodated at the IDP transit points and welfare villages.

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