A major humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Sri Lanka, with hundreds of civilians killed in the past two weeks and 250,000 trapped by intense fighting, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Tuesday.
The aid agency appealed to government forces and separatist Tamil Tigers to respect the laws of war and allow the “safe and voluntary movement” of civilians out of combat zones.
“We are in an all-out decisive stage of the conflict,” Jacques de Maio, ICRC head of operations for South Asia, told a news briefing in Geneva. “There is definitely a major humanitarian situation unfolding right now.”
The Sri Lankan army seized the last major town the rebels controlled, the port of Mullaittivu, on Sunday aiming to strike a death blow to a 25-year insurgency.
Fighting continues in the northern Vanni region, which de Maio called “the last LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] stronghold” where 250,000 civilians are trapped.
Much of the fighting has been “intrinsically incompatible with full respect of the basic rules of the law of war,” he said.
Embodied in the Geneva Conventions, they include the protection of civilians, precaution, distinction between civilian and military structures, and proportionality.
Virtually no humanitarian aid has been able to enter Vanni in recent weeks, he said. Hundreds of patients need evacuation to Vavuniya Hospital in the government-controlled area.
“What we clearly know is that the medical system is both under threat of fire, shelling and looting, and is objectively overwhelmed by an influx of war-wounded and sick people,” he said, referring to Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital in the Vanni.
Meanwhile Sri Lanka has pledged not to launch attacks inside a “safe zone” set up as a place of refuge for hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped by the fierce fighting, the government said yesterday.
The announcement came after repeated reports of army forces firing artillery into the zone, which the government set up on the edge of rebel-held territory for ethnic Tamil civilians to seek shelter from the fighting. Scores of civilians were killed in those attacks, a health official said.
The military denied firing into the area during its offensive to root out rebels.
Amid the reports of rising casualties, Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee rushed to Sri Lanka on Tuesday night and held emergency meetings with top officials, including Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
During the late-night meeting, Rajapaksa gave assurances Sri Lankan forces would respect the safe zone to “minimize the effects of conflict on Tamil civilians,” according to nearly identical statements released by India and Sri Lanka yesterday.
At least 300 civilians were wounded and scores feared killed by Sri Lankan army artillery shells fired into the safe zone on Monday, according to a health official and pro-rebel reports. The military denied firing into the zone.
The government unilaterally declared a “safe zone” last week in a small section of rebel-held territory and called on civilians to move into that area. There have been several reports of artillery fire in that area, including Monday’s shelling.
UN spokesman Gordon Weiss said his staff has seen “dozens of people killed and wounded” in the safe zone over the past few days, including 10 civilians killed on Monday. He said he did not know who was responsible for firing in the area.