The first aid ship to break a two week siege of Sri Lanka's northern Jaffna peninsula prepared to unload yesterday, while another Red Cross-flagged vessel left port to evacuate foreign nationals.
More than three weeks of fighting between the army and Tamil Tiger rebels has created a humanitarian crisis in north and east Sri Lanka and some 180,000 people have fled their homes. With road, air and sea links to Jaffna cut, shortages are rife.
Airstrikes and artillery continued in parts of the region yesterday. Diplomats say Sri Lanka's two-decade civil war between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has now effectively resumed, and returning to a 2002 ceasefire seems unlikely unless both make concessions.
The aid ship is carrying more than 1,000 tonnes of rice and some tinned food from the government and the UN World Food Program.
"The ship anchored 15 miles [24km] off the coast last night [Thursday] because they did not want to go into the harbor at night," said International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesman Davide Vignati. "This morning the plan is to come in and unload."
Most shops on Jaffna have run out of food and some of its half a million people are down to one meal a day. For the last few days, the military has relaxed a curfew and allowed people out for five hours a day.
"But what can we achieve in those five hours?" asked Rajini Vethanayagam, a 40-year-old mother of three. "Nothing. Just wait in queues. Everywhere is very overcrowded, prices are high and most of the goods are not available."
Another small ferry flying the Red Cross flag sailed from the northeastern port of Trincomalee yesterday morning to evacuate the first 150 of an estimated 500 expatriates from Jaffna -- mainly ethnic Jaffna Tamils with British or Canadian passports.
Aid workers hoped fighting would be subdued yesterday to allow aid in. However, artillery fire continued from Jaffna and the government said it had again bombed rebel targets south of Jaffna.
Air force spokesman Group Captain Ajantha Silva said air force planes carried out one airstrike yesterday morning on an identified rebel target in Kilinochchi. There was no immediate report of casualties or damage.