Colombo: Authorities are struggling to cope with at least 100,000 people who have fled Sri Lanka’s war zone, aid agencies said on Thursday, while fighting blocked the Red Cross from evacuating wounded people and delivering aid.
The military said a four-day exodus was beginning to slow, with some 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 escaping.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said fighting had blocked the evacuation of wounded by sea and the delivery of aid supplies by ship. “We are negotiating with the parties in terms of having a safe area around the boats to allow the fishermen to bring the wounded to us,” ICRC spokesman Simon Schorno said in Geneva.
Overwhelmed: Sri Lankan soldiers distributing food parcels to ethnic Tamil civilians who fled the Tamil Tiger controlled areas. AP
ICRC lowered its estimate of civilians still trapped in a narrow coastal strip on the island’s north to less than 50,000. The navy could not immediately be reached for comment.
Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said operations to finish Asia’s longest-running war would not let up, adding that troops were moving towards the rebel pocket where LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran is believed to be hiding. Nanayakkara denied LTTE accusations that troops were using artillery: “We are not using heavy weapons at all. We are only using small arms,” he said.
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. It closed up 1.82% on Thursday, and is up almost 5% this week.
The UN Security Council late on Wednesday said it had “deep concern” for the welfare of those remaining inside the LTTE-held area, which is surrounded by troops.
The military says troops now control all but 13 sq. km of the country, where the LTTE is fighting a last stand in their war to create a separate state for the Tamil minority.
UN spokesman Gordon Weiss said the world body had confirmed that between 90,000 and 100,000 people had 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.”
Sri Lankan foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama acknowledged the “situation was less than ideal” and urged outside help at a meeting with foreign diplomats. “With the unprecedented influx of large numbers of people in such a short period of time, obviously we do face an emergency humanitarian situation, and our friends in the international community are most welcome to provide emergency relief,” he said.
(Ranga Sirilal and Louis Charbonneau at the UN, S. Murari in Chennai and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva contributed to this story.)