Sri Lanka Ignores Calls for Access to War Refugees

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Friday, May 22nd, 2009

Camps Oxfam Pic

An internment camp in the north

COLOMBO— Sri Lanka’s government ignored mounting calls by international relief organizations on Friday for greater access to the country’s swelling refugee camps, as the military continued to weed out suspected former Tamil Tiger rebels hiding among civilians.

Even as the end of the war has brought a new flood of refugees in the north in recent days, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other groups have said that themilitary’s new restrictions have curtailed their activities and are endangering the lives of the refugee population, now estimated at 280,000.

In a joint statement on Friday, 14 international relief organizations operating in the camps said that the government had restricted the movement of their vehicles, making it impossible to provide adequate services.

“The government is afraid that with such a large number of vehicles going in and out of the camps, some L.T.T.E. members may escape,” said David White, the head in Sri Lanka of Oxfam, one of the 14 organizations, referring to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers. “Also, the large number of international vehicles in the camps makes it seem as if it’s an international relief effort, whereas the government is very keen on portraying this as a national effort.”

While the government has said it is screening out suspected Tamil Tigers in the camps, aid officials said the authorities appeared worried that some former rebels had escaped or bribed their way out. The government, which Western governments and human rights organizations have accused of indiscriminately shelling rebel-held areas containing civilians, also seemed intent on controlling access to witnesses, aid officials and diplomats here said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The government rejected criticism of its handling of the refugees, describing its efforts as satisfactory. “Those who are ignorant of such efforts should at least try to see what is happening at ground level before making irresponsible statements to criticize the good work done by the government under difficult conditions,” the health secretary, Dr. Athula Kahandaliyanage, said in a statement. “If such statements are irresponsibly stated, it may be with ulterior motives in order to bring disrepute and to discredit the government.”

The government, which barred journalists from the combat zones and rejected international calls for a cease-fire, stuck to its hard-line stance on Friday, hours before Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, was scheduled to make a 24-hour visit here. Mr. Ban was to meet with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and visit a refugee camp called Manik Farm in the northern district of Vavuniya, where 250,000 of the total 280,000 refugees are being sheltered.

After circling over the combat zone in the country’s northeast section, Mr. Ban’s chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, described the area on Friday as “ravaged,” with many burned-out vehicles and clusters of battered tents.

“What was truly striking was the almost total absence of human habitation,” he said at a news conference here. “It was almost eerie.”

Asked about an investigation into possible war crimes by the Tamil Tigers and the government, Mr. Nambiar said the issue would probably be raised at a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council next week.

But the president, addressing tens of thousands of people outside Parliament on Friday afternoon, dismissed any investigation. “There are some who tried to stop our military campaign by threatening to haul us before war crimes tribunals,” Mr. Rajapaksa said. “They are still trying to do that, but I am not afraid.”

In the final weeks of the war, government troops cornered the Tamil Tigers in a tiny strip of coastline in the island nation’s northeast. Tens of thousands of civilians caught in that area, and used as human shields by the Tamil Tigers, have now been moved just south to the Vavuniya district.

Some of the seriously injured are being taken to the main hospital in the town of Vavuniya, where 1,900 people were being treated earlier this week in a facility with a capacity for 450, according toDoctors Without Borders, the aid group that is helping Sri Lankan doctors there. Most of the refugees were taken to four camps, collectively called Manik Farm and lining a main road in Vavuniya district.

Aid officials with operations there said the government had set up the camps relatively well, with about 10 people sharing tents measuring 16 feet by 10 feet. “The camp management is actually not bad,” said one aid official. “That’s not why the government doesn’t want to let people inside. They don’t want the media to be talking to people about what happened in the conflict zones.” Mr. Nambiar said that Mr. Ban would press for greater access to the camps while working with the Sri Lankan government. He added that the “world is watching” the government’s actions, hinting that badly needed assistance to rebuild the former rebel-held zones may hinge on the government’s postwar behavior.

The United States, whose calls for a cease-fire were ignored by the government here, recently suggested withholding a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund loan for Sri Lanka. In response, the Sri Lankan central bank governor, Nivard Cabraal, told reporters here that the government was working on “plan B, plan C and plan D.”

The comment suggested that the government might turn for help to China, one of the main suppliers of weapons in its victory over the Tamil Tigers.

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