Sri Lanka: Top UN relief official to call for release of civilians trapped in fighting

Over 100,000 civilians have fled the combat areas in northern Sri Lanka since 20 April

26 April 2009 – The top United Nations humanitarian official arrived in Sri Lanka on Sunday to press for the release of tens of thousands of civilians still confined to a shrinking pocket of land on the country's north-east coast, which has been fiercely defended by separatist Tamil rebels against a Government military offensive since December.

“The months of fighting during which the inhabitants of the conflict zone have been trapped have taken a terrible toll among the civilian population,” said Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes at the beginning of a two-day visit to the South Asian nation.

Mr. Holmes, who is also the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, called on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to let the remaining civilian population – estimated to be around 50,000 people – leave the strip of land and to lay down their arms.

For its part, he also urged the Government “to exercise maximum restraint including no use of heavy weapons” in the conflict zone.

Underscoring the need for a new humanitarian pause – a two-day break in hostilities was observed a few weeks ago – to get aid and aid workers into the combat zone, Mr. Holmes stressed, “We must have access to all IDPs [internally displaced persons] wherever they are, including in the conflict zone.”

His visit to Sri Lanka, will include meetings with Government officials, the UN humanitarian country team, civil society and the donor community, when Mr. Holmes will raise “extreme concerns” about civilian casualties from the fighting, as well as the urgent need to get those trapped in the conflict zone out of harm's way without further loss of life.

He will also highlight the urgent need for access by the UN Country Team to the

area, which the President of Sri Lanka already granted during the recent visit of the Secretary-General's Chef de Cabinet, Vijay Nambiar.

With overcrowding an increasing problem in the existing IDP camps, Mr. Holmes will call for the freedom of civilians who have been screened to leave the shelters and find refuge with friends and family elsewhere.

The issue of the 13 UN staff members who have been prevented from leaving IDP camps despite repeated promises from the Government that they will be released, will also be on the agenda.

Together with the Government, international aid agencies and donors, Mr. Holmes will also review the major humanitarian operation under way to help the approximately 200,000 civilians who have escaped from the combat zone over the last three months.


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