U.N. Presses to Enter War Zone

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280,000 Homeless Called 'Grave' Concern
Thursday, May 21st, 2009
Basil and Ban

         Basil Rajapaksa and Ban Ki-Moon.          UN Photo by Paulo Filgueiras

COLOMBO- The United Nations pressed Sri Lanka's government on Wednesday to give aid workers unfettered access to the war zone in the country's north and allow them to evacuate any civilians still trapped there after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers rebel group.

The top U.N. official said the condition of 280,000 Tamils displaced by the recent fighting was a matter of "grave and growing" concern. "A good start would be to provide the U.N. and its partners with full, unconditional access to all civilians," said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka's resettlement camps and a battlefield on Saturday.

While the country celebrated the end of its 26-year civil war by declaring Wednesday a national holiday, the human cost of the victory was still unfolding in the north, where an estimated 7,000 civilians have been killed and about 16,000 injured since fighting intensified in January. An estimated 80,000 people have fled the war zone in the past few days, many of them crowding into government-run camps.

"There are several issues that need urgent attention, including overcrowding and the limited services available at the camps," U.N. refugee agency spokesman Ron Redmond said in Geneva. "Civilians coming out of the conflict zone are sick, hungry and suffering from acute malnourishment and dehydration."

But a Sri Lankan spokesman denied the U.N.'s implication that the camps were inadequate and defended the government's restrictions on aid workers and journalists.

"These camps are not five-star hotels, but we are trying to accommodate the displaced people as best we can," said Lakshman Hulugalle, director general of the Defense Ministry's media center. "But we are not letting journalists and others go there to treat these people as if they were animals in a zoo."

In his strongest public comments since the war's end, outgoing U.S. Ambassador Robert Blake said the United States supports an investigation into alleged human rights abuses during the final phase of the conflict. Foreign ministers of the European Union have asked for an independent inquiry into allegations that both the Tamil rebels and government forces violated international human rights agreements.

"On the question of war crimes, we think it's important for the international community to have more information about what happened on both sides during the recent offensive in northern Sri Lanka," said Blake, who has been nominated by President Obama to be assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs.

Tamil leaders also asked for access to visit the camps where many of their constituents now live. The government has consistently underestimated the depth of the humanitarian crisis, said Suresh Premachandran, a Tamil leader and member of Parliament.

"Right now the international community is just making statements. They must use their leverage," Premachandran said. "The international community can play a strong role. They can tell the Sri Lankan government in very firm words, 'Look, if you are not going to protect your own citizens, we have the right to protect them.' "

Hulugalle said the government believes that rebel sleeper cells probably are hiding in several cities. Colombo remains heavily militarized, with some soldiers patrolling the capital on motorcycles and others manning dozens of checkpoints. Many residents fear that rogue Tamil Tigers are still capable of suicide attacks.

Despite the festive mood around the city on this newly declared holiday, Sri Lankan security forces said it was too early to let their guard down. Earlier Wednesday, troops killed eight suspected rebels as they allegedly prepared ambushes in Sri Lanka's east, the military said.

"The rebels have no more leaders, but still we have to be vigilant for the next two to three years," Hulugalle said.

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