U.N. Leader Presses for Speeding Relief to Refugees in Camps

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Sunday, May 24th, 2009
Ban and Children

Ban Ki-Moon interacts with internally displaced children in Vavuniya. UN Photo by Eskinder Debebe

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, pressed Sri Lanka’s government on Saturday to grant international relief agencies “unhindered access” to refugee camps housing hundreds of thousands of displaced Tamils from Sri Lanka’s civil war.

Mr. Ban was the latest and highest-ranking official to call for greater access to the camps, which have swelled with new arrivals since the final patch of rebel terrain was overrun by government forces.

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa tightened access to the facilities early last week, as its military tried to root out suspected rebels hiding among the civilians.

Making a 24-hour visit to Sri Lanka less than a week after the end of the 26-year civil war, Mr. Ban visited the country’s biggest refugee camp and flew over a former battle zone in the northeast, getting a rare look into the effects of a war that the government here has tried to keep hidden from the outside world.

“The government is doing its utmost best,” Mr. Ban said after his meeting with Mr. Rajapaksa, according to Agence France-Presse. “But the government lacks the resources. There’s a wide gap between what is needed and what can be done.”

There was no response to Mr. Ban’s request yet from either the government or Mr. Rajapaksa, who had rejected earlier calls from Western nations and international organizations, including the United Nations, to impose a cease-fire. Fighting since January has led to the deaths of 7,000 civilians, the United Nations said.

On Saturday, Mr. Ban flew by helicopter over the small northeastern strip of land where the rebel Tamil Tigers and tens of thousands of Tamil civilians had been cornered in the last weeks of the war. He also visited a sprawling refugee camp in the country’s Vavuniya district, where most of the nearly 300,000 Tamil refugees are being kept in camps surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by soldiers.

The new restrictions have heightened suspicion among ethnic Tamils here in the capital and overseas, the very same groups to which the president appealed for unity a few days ago.

A 42-year-old Tamil man living in Toronto said his mother and some 30 relatives in Kilinochchi, a northern town that had long served as the Tamil Tigers’ de facto capital, had been trapped in the conflict zone. After weeks with no news, he said he had heard from former neighbors now living in Vavuniya that his relatives were alive and scattered in various camps in the area.

The man, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of endangering his relatives, said he flew to Sri Lanka and made it to Vavuniya last week.

“I wanted to see my mother and relatives, to bring them food and money,” he said in a telephone interview from Toronto, to where he had returned. “But the roads were blocked, there were checkpoints everywhere, and they weren’t letting anybody visit the camps.”

“The government is hiding so many things — that’s why they won’t let people there,” he added. “I believe my mother is with her brother, my uncle, though I don’t know whether they are in the same place. They are just regular people who were caught in the cross-fire.”

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