Sri Lanka

Red Cross quits Sri Lanka front as fighting rages

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Originally published
By Simon Gardner

COLOMBO, May 23 (Reuters) - The Red Cross pulled back indefinitely from the front line of Sri Lanka's civil war in the island's far north on Wednesday amid fears for staff safety, citing two firing incidents nearby within a week.

The military said it had closed the Omanthai checkpoint that sits on defence lines that separate government from Tamil Tiger-held territory in the northern district of Vavuniya, 170 miles (275 km) north of Colombo, where the focus of a new chapter in the island's two-decade civil war has now shifted.

Military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe said the Tigers had opened fire on a civilian van as it tried to exit rebel-territory at the checkpoint on Tuesday, days after the Tigers fired volleys of mortar bombs at the area.

"We took a decision today to leave the line, to pull out, and we will not come back until further notice and have spoken to both sides, got safety guarantees and rediscuss the procedures," Red Cross spokesman Davide Vignati told Reuters.

The Omanthai crossing is the main transit point between the government-held south and the Tigers' de facto state in the north, and sits on the island's main north-south highway.

But movement across the "border" has been restricted for months by fierce fighting between the state and the Tigers which has killed around 4,000 people since last year.

As a parallel propaganda war rages, the government has not allowed many journalists to cross into Tiger territory for months.

There are now daily skirmishes and clashes in Vavuniya district and regular air strikes by the air force on Tiger targets in the north, which analysts fear could see a conflict that has killed nearly 70,000 people since 1983 escalate.

The military said it killed five more Tigers overnight, but there was no independent confirmation.

"Just overnight there were three incidents," said Samarasinghe. "The Tigers shot at a civilian vehicle as it rushed to an army checkpoint and some of the bullets hit the ICRC hut."

"One Tiger cadre was killed in Vavuniya district last night and we recovered a cyanide capsule, we recovered two Tiger bodies near Madhu (further south) and another two cadres were killed in the east."

The military said on Tuesday jets had pounded a Tiger training camp in the far north, but the rebels said the bombs had fallen in uninhabited jungle and caused no damage.

The Tigers were not immediately available for comment on Wednesday on the border-crossing shooting incident.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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