Sri Lanka Defends Refugee Aid Program as Ban Visits

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Friday, May 22nd, 2009
Athula Kahandaliyanage

Dr. Athula Kahandaliyanage

Sri Lanka rejected criticism of its aid for civil war refugees as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon plans to visit the island today to promote reconciliation after the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels.

“Sri Lanka has provided a satisfactory service to the people of the north even before it was cleared of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,” Athula Kahandaliyanage, secretary to the Health Ministry, said in a statement.

“Those who are ignorant of such efforts should at least try to see what is happening at ground level before making irresponsible statements.”

The UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross say their aid operations are being slowed by government restrictions in the north where an estimated 280,000 people are displaced.

Sri Lanka’s government declared an end to the 26-year war with the LTTE earlier this week after the last rebel fighters were routed and killed in the northeast. Ban will spend two days in the South Asian country assessing aid programs.

“The infrastructure has been satisfactorily established -- even the LTTE got the medical services from government hospitals,” Kahandaliyanage said.

The Health Ministry is inviting media representatives to visit centers for displaced people, according to the statement.

Temporary Halt

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said two days ago access to camps, mainly in Vavuniya district, was being hindered. The ICRC said government restrictions forced a temporary halt to some aid distribution in the region.

Vijay Nambiar, Ban’s chief of staff, visited the main camp at Vavuniya yesterday, the UN said.

As many as 251,000 people are in Vavuniya, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The agency said it is concerned about overcrowding and restrictions on access for aid vehicles.

“It also underscores the need for freedom of movement for people in camps to allow those who have been identified as non- combatants to be able to relocate and stay with host families, if they have the option,” the UN said.

Sri Lanka’s government said yesterday it intends to resettle displaced people within 180 days and close the camps.

The government issued a statement after President Mahinda Rajapaksa met with India’s Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and M.K. Narayanan, the Indian national security adviser, in the capital, Colombo.

Indian Support

India is “committed to provide” all possible assistance in the implementation of Sri Lanka’s plan to resettle the refugees, according to the statement.

India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu is home to more than 73,000 Sri Lankan refugees, according to the UN. India sent peacekeeping soldiers to Sri Lanka in 1987 and they withdrew from the island three years later after clashes with the LTTE.

India is setting up a 100-bed hospital in Vavuniya and will send a team of doctors and medicines today, Indian state-run broadcaster Doordarshan reported, without citing anyone.

Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader, his commanders and 350 fighters were killed in the battle at the weekend near the port of Mullaitivu, the military said.

Soldiers killed 10 Tamil Tigers yesterday when a unit was found in the jungle near the eastern port of Trincomalee, the Media Center for National Security said.

Army Casualties

More than 6,200 soldiers were killed and almost 30,000 wounded in military operations against the Tamil Tigers since August 2006, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said today, according to Agence France-Presse.

“We made huge sacrifices for this victory,” AFP cited him as telling state television.

U.S. military satellites monitored the conflict zone during the final days of the war, the Times of London reported on its Web site, citing Marshall Hudson, a spokesman for the Bethesda, Maryland-based National Geo-spatial Intelligence Agency that provides services for government agencies.

The images may be used when the UN Human Rights Council meets May 25 to discuss possible war crimes in Sri Lanka’s conflict, the newspaper said, without citing anyone.

The Council meeting is a “waste of time, energy and resources,” Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka’s minister for disaster management and human rights, said yesterday, according to the government’s Web site. Funds would be better used to help the displaced people, he said.

The LTTE fought for a separate Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka’s north and east. Tamils make up almost 12 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 20 million, while Sinhalese account for 74 percent, according to the 2001 census.

To contact the reporters on this story: Paul Tighe in Sydney atptighe@bloomberg.netJay Shankar in Bangalore at jshankar1@bloomberg.net.

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