Tamil Tiger rebels killed a Sri Lankan soldier on Monday on the first day of a unilateral ceasefire declared by the Colombo government. On the occasion of Sri Lankan New Year, President Mahinda Rajapaksa called for the two-day ceasefire to allow civilians trapped in the conflict zone free passage. Meanwhile, his government has expressed disappointment that not enough was done to protect the Sri Lankan embassy in Oslo which came under attach by ethnic Tamil expatriates in Norway on Sunday.
Tens of thousands of civilians are caught in the conflict zone between Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army
The Sri Lankan army’s unilateral ceasefire took effect at midnight on Sunday local time as much of the country prepared to take part in New Year celebrations. But the troops did not put down their arms to enter negotiations with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) but to allow tens of thousands of civilians caught between the two sides to escape.
Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama told the BBC on Sunday: “We want an environment that is conducive to all parts of our country and we also want to see that the civilians entrapped and held hostage by the LTTE do have the benefit in terms of having a free movement.”
This is one of the steps that the international community has been demanding for some time now.
100,000 civilians trapped in 5 square kilometres
In recent months, Sri Lankan troops have driven the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels more and more to the northeast of the island. An estimated 100,000 civilians at least, mainly Tamils, are trapped in the conflict zone -- a space of five square kilometres that they are sharing with the rebels.
Annemarie Loof from Doctors without Borders said the situation was desperate: “They live in very basic housing, basically just plastic sheeting. There’s not enough food, there’s not enough clean drinking water, there’s not enough sanitation and there’s not enough medicine. The rainy season has just started so there’s a lot of flooding. On top of that there’s fighting all around them.”
According to Human Rights Watch, 3000 civilians have died since January as a result of the fighting.
Civilians frightened to leave without international supervision
However, not many civilians seem to have used the ceasefire to flee the zone. The LTTE claims that the civilians are staying there voluntarily.
But images and witness reports do not confirm this, says Sri Lankan human rights activist Jehan Perera:”The LTTE, for all that we know, is not letting these people leave that area even if they want to. It is also likely that people are fearful to leave on their own, without international supervision facilitating their journey along the corridor made available and without international supervision of the new place into which they will be going.”
The UN wants a camp to be set up and run by civilians and not by the army. It also insists that aid organisations should have free access. So far, its demands have not been met by the Sri Lankan army.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the ceasefire was a first step but that he hoped it would last for more than two days.