The ongoing fighting in Sri Lanka’s northeast has left many civilians dead. Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara has now accused the Tamil Tigers of firing on a group of more than 1,000 civilians fleeing the combat zone, leaving at least 19 people dead. The Tigers have not commented so far. The latest killings have come just a day after a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber blew herself up at a refugee camp in the north-eastern district of Mullaitivu, killing 30 people.
Civilians at an aid camp near Vavuniya, north of Colombo
Monday’s suicide attack near one of the refugee camps has rung alarm bells again over the safety of civilians. International rights groups have condemned the Tamil Tigers for deliberately targeting civilians and have called the attack a clear violation of international law.
“Although the target was a check point, the fact that the bomber was disguised as a civilian is an unlawful act and it will only blur the security forces’ idea of who is a civilian and who is a combatant,” says Yolanda Foster of Amnesty International in London.
The battle across the frontlines in the north of the island has forced many Tamil families to leave their homes. The UN says at least 250,000 people are trapped in the conflict zone. But the Colombo government insists the numbers are less than 100,000, while they admit that the rate of people fleeing the region has risen sharply in recent days.
‘War without witnesses’
The Tigers, who are reportedly confined to an area of less than 175 square kms, are accused of using civilians as human shields. They deny the allegations and put the blame on the government for targeting the civilians.
Foster of Amnesty International says it is difficult to verify what exactly is happening on the ground:
“This is a war without witnesses. So when there are allegations of shelling of civilians it is very difficult to verify whether it is the government or the Tamil tigers, who is responsible.”
Dire humanitarian situation
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says it is very concerned about wounded and sick people trapped in the area where the fighting is taking place. Many of them are believed to be in a vulnerable situation, says Sophie Romanens, a spokesperson of the group in Colombo:
“They urgently need basic stuff such as food, clean water, sanitation and medical facilities.”
On Tuesday, the ICRC evacuated around 240 sick and wounded people by boat. They were stranded in a community centre inside the combat zone for nearly a week. The compound of the community centre came under repeated artillery shelling last week that killed several patients.
“For quite a long time no humanitarian aid could reach these people and no medical evacuation could take place because it was not possible to get the safe passage from both sides,” says ICRC’s Sophie Romanens.
Meanwhile the government has guaranteed that the patients can travel out safely. However Amnesty International says the two sides should immediately declare a temporary truce to set up a proper humanitarian corridor, so that immediate aid can reach the civilians as soon as possible.