UN official warns of ‘killing field’ in Sri Lanka

May 16th, 2009 - 1:53 am ICT by IANS  

Geneva, May 16 (DPA) A UN official Friday described the coastal strip housing thousands of civilians in northern Sri Lanka as a “killing field”, with unattributed UN sources putting the death toll there at up to 8,000 since January.
Officials in Geneva said pleas to the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger rebels for access to the conflict zone for humanitarian and to allow refugees to flee have gone unheeded, while thousands have been killed in recent months.

Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for an independent committee to investigate possible war crimes, and said the supposed safe zone on a northern beach “could turn into a killing field, if it is not already one”.

Calls for the two sides to the conflict to respect the laws of war have also been “consistently ignored,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in Geneva.

UN officials, speaking to DPA on condition of anonymity, have given “conservative” estimates that 7,000 and even possibly 8,000 people have been killed since the end of January

Speaking in the British parliament this week, Bill Rammell, a junior Foreign Office minister, said 6,500 civilians had been killed, and if accurate, the reports were “appalling.”

He was apparently basing his statistics on an internal note that was at least several days old.

Journalists and aid workers are prevented by the government from gaining access to the conflict zone.

Somewhwere between 20,000 civilians, according to the government, and 50,000, according to UN agencies, are trapped in a tiny rebel-held enclave in the north.

The scenes in the small coastal enclave in northeast Sri Lanka has been described by the International Committee of the Red Cross as an “unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe”.

Other UN senior officials, including John Holmes, the top humanitarian affairs coordinator, have warned of a “bloodbath”.

Last week, four independent UN human rights experts called for a commission of inquiry to investigate both sides to the conflict, warning of war crimes.

OCHA reported that 198,089 people have crossed to government controlled areas from the conflict zone since October last year and some 50,000 people are estimated to remain inside the fighting area.

Aid agencies expect the influx of displaced people to continue.

UN refugee agency officials said many camps for the displaced, run by the Sri Lankan government, were severely overcrowded. Moreover, there were serious concerns about drinking water and sanitation. Also, families were reportedly being separated.

There was a presence of Sri Lankan military personnel in the camps, which was worrying some officials.

The rebels are accused of using civilians as human shields and preventing them from escaping while the government has reneged on commitments to stop using heavy weapons.

The World Food Programme said it has not been able to bring in large amounts of supplies since the beginning of April, only managing to get in small amounts of food that would last for a several days.

Three times this week the WFP tried to send in shipments of food but were unable to due to the fighting.

Reports say malnutrition is on the rise and some of those who escaped the conflict zone arrive at UN humanitarian centers having not eaten in days.

“We are deeply concerned by the humanitarian situation,” said Emilia Casella, a WFP spokeswoman.

The UN’s humanitarian appeal for Sri Lanka remained only 30 percent funded. It is asking for $155 million.

Sri Lankan military officials said they are on the final phase of a military offensive launched in August 2006 to crush the LTTE, which has been fighting for an independent homeland for the minority Tamils for more than 25 years.

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