By MARGARET BESHEER of the Voice of America
THE UN Security Council has expressed its deep concern about the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka’s conflict zone and the plight of thousands of civilians still trapped there. Council members urged the government to protect the civilians and called on Tamil Tiger rebels not to use them as human shields.
In an informal closed-door meeting the Security Council received a briefing from UN special envoy Vijay Nambiar on his mission last week to Sri Lanka.
Following the two-hour long session, Security Council president for the month of April, Mexican Ambassador Claude Heller told reporters that the council was in agreement on its deep concern for civilians in the Vanni region of northeastern Sri Lanka, where government forces are trying to oust Tamil Tiger rebels of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) from their last stronghold along the coast.
Ambassador Heller said the council strongly condemns the LTTE as a terrorist organization and for using civilians as human shields and not allowing them to leave the conflict area.
“We demand they, the LTTE, immediately lay down arms, renounce terrorism, allow a UN-assisted evacuation of the remaining civilians in the conflict area, and join the political process through dialogue in order to put an end to the conflict. The Security Council members, we urge all parties, including the government of Sri Lanka, to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law and to allow international humanitarian agencies access to those affected by the fighting,” he said.
US Ambassador Susan Rice called the situation “grave” and “dire” and said Washington is deeply concerned. “We think it is absolutely imperative that both sides cease the fighting and the heavy shelling that is putting many thousands of civilians in immediate danger,” he said.
UN Assistant Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs Catherine Bragg, said the humanitarian situation in the Vanni region is “absolutely critical” and that the United Nations, which has been shut out of the conflict zone, must be given immediate access.
She said the Sri Lankan government says 90,000 civilians have gotten out of the conflict zone in recent days, but she cautioned that that figure has not been independently verified. Meanwhile, tens of thousands still remain trapped inside.
Sri Lanka’s UN envoy, Hewa Palihakkara, said UN agencies are allowed access to areas outside the zone and that the International Committee of the Red Cross and Caritas both have staff inside the zone.
He also rejected international criticism that journalists have not been allowed near the fighting and some have even been refused entry to Sri Lanka entirely.
Earlier Wednesday, international aid groups expressed their disappointment with the international community’s response to the situation. In a letter to the secretary-general and the Security Council they urged them to take immediate action to protect civilians caught in the conflict zone.