Sri Lankan troops will no longer use heavy weapons or air strikes in fighting against Tamil rebels in the north-east, the government in Colombo has said. But it has dismissed an LTTE ceasefire and civilian casualties continue to rise alarmingly.
In a statement released to the media this morning, the government said the army would focus on trying to rescue civilians. Human rights groups and the UN have been lobbying hard on this issue, but analysts say that only an end to the assault will address the problem.
The rebels are boxed in to a shrinking patch of land which they share with thousands of civilians.
On Sunday the government dismissed a Tamil Tiger ceasefire offer as a "joke", saying the rebels were near defeat and must surrender unconditionally or face "total destruction".
The United Nations now estimates that more than 6,500 civilians have died and 13,000 have been injured in the fighting in the north eastern region of Sri Lanka. Hundreds of civilian casualties were reported last week alone.
“Civilians are suffering injuries and dying because [both sides] are violating international humanitarian law,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka expert on Friday 24 April.
She added: “The dire situation of civilians caught in the cross-fire is exacerbated by the lack of humanitarian aid, including medical supplies, food and water.”
Medical supplies are critically low in the so-called ‘No Fire Zone’. Many civilians are at risk of dying from war-related injuries which could be avoided if vital humanitarian assistance were let in immediately.
"The government must allow access to the area of the zone west of the lagoon which is now effectively under their control," said Yolanda Foster. "Without immediate international assistance, there will be further preventable deaths."
The government of Sri Lanka maintained for months that the numbers of civilians trapped in the conflict zone was lower than aid agencies estimates. As a result, it has not been prepared to deal with the tens of thousands of civilians, much higher numbers than government estimates, who have now crossed into its territory.
Many of the camps are severely over-crowded and the main district hospital in Vavuniya is overstretched. Unimpeded humanitarian access to the camps is needed so that domestic and international agencies can provide vital life saving medical aid, shelter, water and food.
Over the last three months, the Tamil Tigers have used civilians trapped in the conflict zone as buffers against government forces. When civilians have tried to flee, they have been attacked by the Tigers, says Amnesty.
Despite the government’s claims of having created a “safe zone” for civilians, the Sri Lankan military has reportedly used heavy artillery, which constitutes indiscriminate action under the circumstances, causing civilian deaths and injuries. Both the Tigers and Sri-Lankan Military have been violating the laws of war, the global human rights agency says.
"The international community needs to bring effective pressure on both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers to protect the civilians," said AI's Yolanda Foster. "Specifically, both sides should ensure that any civilians who want to leave the conflict zone are able to do so without being attacked by the Tiger fighters and without being punished by the government forces.
"After ensuring that civilians can reach safety, if the government continues its attacks against the Tiger fighters, it must use methods and weapons that are not indiscriminate," she added.
Civilians fleeing the conflict zone are being held by the Sri Lankan government in de facto detention centres. Amnesty International has received credible reports of enforced disappearances of young Tamil men who are leaving the conflict zone.
“Sri Lanka has a long and well-established history of forced disappearances dating back to the 1980s. There is virtual impunity for this widespread practice,” commented Foster. "Any Tamil fighters who are captured should be treated in accordance with international standards."
Amnesty International has been urging the UN Security Council to discuss how best to ensure the protection of civilians, stop enforced disappearances, provide adequate shelter for internally displaced people and get international monitors on the ground who can assess the situation first hand and ensure that the humanitarian and human rights crisis is addressed immediately.
"Displaced civilians should be processed as rapidly as possible, provided with medical attention and then given help with relocation," says Yolanda Foster.
Also on Ekklesia: Savitri Hensman, who was born in Sri Lanka and monitors the situation closely, writes about 'Holding onto hope for Sri Lanka' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9344