Colombo: The flight of more than 100,000 people from Sri Lanka’s war zone is beginning to overload the system, the United Nations said on Thursday, after the Security Council warned those still trapped remain in grave danger.
The military said that a four-day exodus was beginning to slow down with more than 103,000 people having come to army-held areas since troops cleared an earthen barrier it said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had built to stop them.
Despite the massive outpouring, the UN Security Council late on Wednesday said it had “deep concern” for the welfare of those remaining inside the LTTE-held area, a narrow coastal strip surrounded by troops aiming to win Asia’s longest-running war.
The military says troops now control all but 13 square km (5 sq miles) of the Indian Ocean island, where the LTTE and founder-leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran are fighting a last stand in their war to create a separate state for the Tamil minority.
United Nations spokesman Gordon Weiss said the world body had confirmed that between 90,000 and 100,000 people have left the combat zone since Monday. They will join 80,000 people already in refugee camps away from the front.
“There is serious overcrowding in the camps and it is only to get worse in coming days,” Weiss said in Colombo. “It is a huge exodus and it threatens to overwhelm the available systems.”
The United Nations had urged the government of Sri Lanka to identify new sites and clear them as soon as possible to accommodate the outpouring, he said.
Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said combat operations remained underway.
“Troops are moving in a southern direction,” he said, towards the remaining rebel pocket. He denied LTTE accusations that troops were shelling the area. “We are not using heavy weapons at all. We are only using small arms.”
Independent confirmation of battlefield accounts is difficult because outsiders are generally restricted from it.
For a fourth straight day, the military progress drove the Colombo Stock Exchange higher, traders said. Provisional data showed it up 1.5% in midday trade.
Security council warning
On Wednesday, at France’s urging, the UN Security Council met for an informal briefing on the situation.
“The Security Council members, we expressed our deep concern about the humanitarian situation ... and the plight of the civilians trapped within the conflict area,” Mexican UN Ambassador Claude Heller told reporters after the meeting.
In a summary of the closed-door meeting, he said council members “strongly condemned” the LTTE for failing to release the civilians.
Council diplomats said China, Russia and others had opposed the idea of a formal discussion of the Sri Lankan war, viewing it instead as an internal matter for the Sri Lankans.
The United Nations estimates tens of thousands are inside the remaining area, while the International Committee of the Red Cross has said at least 50,000 remain in “catastrophic” conditions.
The people who have fled have been on foot for days, and stuck in the war zone with minimal food, water or medical care, aid agencies said.
Pictures released by the government showed scores of people carrying their belongings on their backs, and others helping the sick or elderly to move.
One showed a woman giving birth inside a bus carrying her to a refugee camp, with two midwives helping deliver the child.
A former rebel spokesman, Daya Master, was being interrogated after he became the most senior rebel to surrender so far, Nanayakkara said.
Surrender is an act considered a betrayal to the cause and leader Prabhakaran’s dictate that followers wear cyanide vials to be taken in case of capture.
Sri Lanka has ruled out any further truces, while the LTTE has said it will never surrender its fight to build a separate state for Tamils, which started in the early 1970s and erupted into a full civil war in 1983.