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Sri Lanka Crisis Deepens as Red Cross Forced to Suspend Aid

Posted in Uncategorized by malaysiasms on May 21, 2009

TIMES ONLINE

The Red Cross has suspended distribution of emergency aid to nearly 300,000 civilians displaced by the Sri Lankan Army’s victory over the Tamil Tigers. The move came as details emerged of desperate conditions in the internment camps where officials say that refugees might have to stay for up to two years.

Accounts gathered covertly by aid workers and relayed to The Times yesterday described severe shortages of food, water, medicine and clothing in the camps. “My children are begging me for food and water. It is killing me to see us like this,” Kothai, a woman interned in the Vavuniya region in the north of the country, said.

Many of the civilians are sick, malnourished and suffering from battlefield injuries after being fired on by both sides in the bloody climax of the 26-year civil war, witnesses say. More than 200,000 people have walked up to 50 miles (80km) to reach more than 40 camps with barbed-wire fences, according to the United Nations.

The aid agency Médecins sans Frontières said that 50,000 people had arrived in the region since last Friday. An estimated 80,000 more are on their way. One traumatised woman who escaped from the conflict zone last week said: “There are dead bodies everywhere. I cannot talk about it.”

The Sri Lankan military, which on Tuesday released pictures of what it claimed was the corpse of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the rebel leader, said that his body would be buried close to where it was found on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in the north east.

“We cannot keep a decomposing body for long,” Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told The Times. “It will be buried soon.” He said that Prabhakaran’s body had been identified on Tuesday by two former members of the Tigers who had defected to the Government, including a translator who had been with him until four months ago. There were no plans to carry out any further verification, such as a DNA test, he added.

The UN has accused the Sri Lankan authorities of blocking access to civilians who were either trapped in the conflict area or who fled to the camps. “We need to have access, I repeat, total access, without the least let or hindrance — for the UN, for non-governmental organisations and for the Red Cross,” Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said.

On Tuesday the Government barred the Red Cross from the chronically overburdened internment camps where ethnic Tamils who escaped the war zone are being forcibly held. The organisation then suspended operations. There have been reports of rapes of Tamil women — although it is impossible to verify such claims as journalists are also banned from the area.

The UN said yesterday that it had no idea how many people had died in the camps. Save the Children said that at least a quarter of the pregnant and breastfeeding women detained were suffering from acute malnourishment. At least a third of the children were malnourished, it added.

It is not known how many civilians were unable to leave the combat zone in the north east of the country, where the Tigers made their last stand. The area, which appears to have been devastated, has been sealed off by the Army. The Red Cross had been the only neutral organisation in the conflict zone. It had between 20 and 25 staff there but has not heard from them since last week.

The UN was negotiating with the Government yesterday in an effort to win access for Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary-General, to the area when he visits Sri Lanka tomorrow. Military officials insisted that only a handful of civilians caught in the fighting had required medical assistance. The Government, which says that it is coping, has severely restricted access to the camps to aid agencies and the UN since the weekend.

The Army plans to detain those in the camps while it screens them for escaped Tiger fighters. It had suggested that this would take as long as two to three years but an international outcry led it to promise to process 80 per cent of those held by the end of this year.

The UN has demanded access to oversee the screening process but has been refused. Experts have voiced alarm at the camps because of Sri Lanka’s human rights record. “The concerns . . . reflect terrible recent experiences of disappearances \, arbitrary detentions, the mistreatment of detainees and a lack of accountability,” Sam Zarifi, of Amnesty International, said.

If the camps were regarded as part of a conflict zone, by blocking aid while failing to provide adequate care, the Sri Lankan Government was contravening the Geneva Conventions, he argued. If the war was regarded as being over, the Government was ignoring internationally accepted guidelines on the treatment of displaced people.

The Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, which is responsible for setting up the camps, did not return calls asking for comment yesterday. Rajiva Wijesinha, secretary of the ministry, told The Times in February that “of course” people would be forced to stay in the camps.

“This is a situation where we’re dealing with terrorists who infiltrate civilian populations. Security has to be paramount,” he said.

Concerns over the camps will raise questions about the sincerity of President Rajapaksa’s pledge on Tuesday in an address to Parliament to build bridges between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority.

Mangala Samaraweera, a former Foreign Minister and now opposition MP, said: “He is good at making noise but the words do not always match the action. Anybody against him is labelled a traitor.”

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