Franciscans International, a human rights organization, has joined international and church aid groups in expressing deep concern over the fate of more than 350,000 Tamil civilians it says are trapped in Sri Lanka's northern region of Vanni - writes Peter Kenny.
"The ongoing conflict between Sri Lankan Armed Forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Northern Sri Lanka has pushed civilians into a very small area surrounded by fighting," said Geneva-based FI.
On 29 January ACT International, a global humanitarian alliance of churches and agencies said, "Churches operating in Sri Lankan government-controlled areas have requested support from the National Christian Council/ACT to provide food, household items, water and medical supplies to persons displaced by the present conflict."
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on 29 January 2009 accused both Sri Lankan forces and the Tamil Tiger of committing grave violations. She condemned the increasing number of civilian casualties in the war noting also her concern at the "highly-restricted access" to the area where fighting is taking place.
FI said in a 28 January statement, "Many civilians are victims of artillery shelling, aerial bombings and Claymore mine attacks from governmental and LTTE forces." It noted, "Heavy bombardments in the area have made the delivery of food supplies, as well as of emergency medical supplies, almost impossible due to the ongoing fighting. This has caused acute food shortages in the region."
The Roman Catholic group said there is an urgent need for children, women and elderly adults to leave the area to ensure their safety, while Human Rights Watch has said that both the government and the LTTE "need to take urgent action to prevent large-scale civilian deaths".
In Colombo, on 27 January 200 participants from Anglican, Baptist, Roman Catholic and Methodist churches as well as the Church of Ceylon, the Church of India, the Pentecostal Mission and the Salvation Army prayed for unity in the war-torn country.
They included Anglican Bishop Duleep de Chickera of Colombo and Catholic Bishop Cletus Chandrasiri Perera of Ratnapura. Participants prayed for the challenges they face because of the 26-year-old ethnic conflict and other violence. "Help us to be instruments of your reconciliation," they asked.
On 14 January, the U.N.'s head of humanitarian affairs and its emergency relief coordinator, John Holmes, stated in a report to the Security Council in New York that civilians had been denied the right to escape the fighting.
"I am, however, concerned that some 350 000 civilians … are trapped in an increasingly confined space and effectively prevented from leaving by Tamil Tiger rebels," said Holmes. "This raises deep concerns over the possible use of civilians to render areas immune from military operations."
FI said, "Local actors have urged the government to open and respect a safe corridor without delay." It also said that civilians escaping the conflict zone who manage to cross over to government-controlled areas are treated by government security forces as LTTE suspects "and are kept in camps".
The Franciscans called on the Sri Lankan authorities to ensure that those who cross to the government-controlled areas get humane treatment and that there be special attention given to "the prevention of further violence and the ill-treatment of civilians who have reached these camps".
FI noted that in September 2008, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations were requested to leave the Vanni region by the Sri Lankan government and that only the International Committee of the Red Cross was granted permission to remain.
FI said the government should allow humanitarian agencies to return to the area in order to continue to be able to carry on with "humanitarian relief for vulnerable civilians".
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]