Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Civilian death toll rises as fighting continues

COLOMBO, 4 February 2009 (IRIN)

  • As Sri Lankan government troops close in on the rebel Tamil Tigers, the UN has reported a rising number of civilian deaths in the northern battle zone.

At least 52 people were killed in shelling in Suranthapuram village in the northeastern district of Mullaitivu when the area came under 16 hours of heavy shelling, including a cluster bomb attack, on 3 February, UN spokesman Gordon Weiss said, quoting UN staff stationed in the area.

"We don't know who is responsible or how many shells hit," Weiss said, adding that patients in the only functioning hospital in the district had been evacuated on 4 February.

At an invitees-only independence celebration in Colombo televised nationwide, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse said: "I am confident that in a few days we will decisively defeat the terrorist force that many repeatedly kept saying was invincible."

At the same time he called for a spirit of national unity to take the country into a new phase of stability, and appealed to those who had left the island due to the conflict to return.

Prior to his address, key aid donors were urging a ceasefire to prevent further suffering, death and injury to civilians and - for the first time - calling on the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to surrender and lay down their arms.

Warnings

The UN and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have sounded warnings of the increasing numbers of casualties among an estimated 250,000 war-displaced trapped in a small area in Mullaitivu District. The so-called "safe area" is in the heart of the last remaining war zone where the battle is expected to intensify.

"There remains probably only a short period of time before the LTTE loses control of all areas in the north," the USA, the European Union, Japan and Norway said in a joint statement released on 3 February.

"The LTTE and the government should recognise that further loss of life of civilians and combatants will serve no cause," they stated.

The four countries were the principal backers of the now defunct 2002 ceasefire pact and peace process which sought to devolve political power to the LTTE.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband also called for a temporary "no-fire" period during which the injured could be evacuated and relief supplies delivered to those civilians trapped in the conflict zone.

Tamils "still feel insecure"

National flags have been flying in homes, shops and businesses, but Tamils are not in a celebratory mood.

"As far as Tamils are concerned, there is no reason to celebrate. Although Tamils are being asked to go to government-controlled areas, they still feel insecure," P. Raghuwaran, an executive in a computer company in Colombo, told IRIN. "We still haven't seen any improvement for the Tamils."

He said the harassment that members of the Tamil community experienced at places such as military checkpoints gave them a feeling of insecurity. "We understand there are security concerns, but they have to understand that while all LTTE members are Tamils, not all Tamils are LTTE," said Raghuwaran, who left his home in the then war-torn northern Jaffna peninsula over 15 years ago.

Tamil politician Dharmalingam Sithadthan, a former rebel whose group has joined the political mainstream, said: "The only way to consolidate the military gain is to have a political settlement and to have devolution of power."

cj/bj/cb

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