15 April 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


While warmly welcoming the announcement by the Government of Sri Lanka of a pause in military operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan (LTTE) to allow civilians to leave the “no-fire zone”, the top United Nations humanitarian official today said that the two-day suspension was not enough.

Updating correspondents at Headquarters on the humanitarian situation in the small pocket of land in Sri Lanka which was the scene of ongoing fighting and where an estimated 100,000 civilians were trapped, John Holmes, Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said the pause had been a valuable first step that hopefully would allow more trapped civilians to leave the conflict area and make it possible to get aid and relief workers into the area.  The Secretary-General had called for a humanitarian pause for longer than two days and agreed to by both sides, he added.

Unfortunately, he said, there seemed to be fewer civilians getting out during the pause than before and it was clear that LTTE actively prevented those who wanted to leave from getting out.  Civilians should not be used as “pawns or human shields” in that way, he said, and called strongly on the group to allow those who wanted to leave -- which, according to him, was the vast majority -- to do so, and get them “out of harms way”.

Fighting had resumed and the civilian casualty toll was rising.  During the pause, an International Red Cross ship had been able to deliver aid and evacuate some casualties, he said.  He hoped that a World Food Programme ship would be able to deliver its cargo in the coming few days, as current food supplies were not sufficient.  Availability of medical supplies, shelter and clean water was also a matter of concern, he added.

It was essential for all concerned to do everything they could to save civilian lives, he continued, calling once again on the Sri Lankan Government not to use heavy weapons in the area as they had been doing.  He also called on the Government to move faster to address concerns raised regarding the camps for internally displaced persons in terms of camp management, freedom of movement and better and more transparent screening of people getting out of the area.  That way, reports of abuse could be dealt with.  There should also be assurances that the people in the camps would be allowed to return to their place of origin as soon as possible.

Answering correspondents’ questions, Mr. Holmes said the Government had not indicated that it would now start a “final offensive”.  The impression had been raised that a “siege” would be employed.  Because of the density of the population – an estimated 100,000 people in some 5 square miles, or and area twice the size of Central Park -– the danger of a “blood bath” was of great concern.  Every day of fighting added to the civilian casualty list.

It was true that there were some United Nations local staff members in the camps who could not leave, he told another reporter.  He had been made aware of that fact as soon as they arrived in the camps after escaping the no-fire zone.  The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had requested that hose persons be allowed to leave immediately and resume their work.

The Government had constantly given assurances that they would be allowed to do so, but so far, nothing had happened.  The United Nations had not tried to conceal the presence of the staff in the camps, but was applying “private diplomacy” to solve the matter.  He could not think of a single instance in another country where a similar situation existed.

Asked about the number of civilians and people killed, he said he could not give any verified figures.  There were reports that about a dozen people were being killed a day -- “sometimes more, sometimes less” -- but in any event, it was an unacceptably high number.  There were “rudimentary” medical facilities in the area and there was great need for medical supplies.  For instance, injured people had had limbs amputated because of fear of infection, something which could be prevented had there been better medical facilities.  There were also incidences of water-borne diseases such as watery diarrhoea, he added.

In response to other questions, Mr. Holmes said that, in the past few weeks, there had been contacts with representatives of LTTE outside of the conflict area who were in communication with leaders on the ground, to pressure them into allowing civilians to leave.  The response had been that the civilians were there voluntarily and were not being held against their will.  According to LTTE, the people did not trust the Government’s promises regarding their treatment once they came out.

However, relief workers that had been in the area had reported that the majority of the population was “desperate” to leave, he said, adding that there had also been reports that those who tried to leave the area were fired on, as well as reports of forced recruitment, including of children.

LTTE was the biggest obstacle to people trying to leave the no-fire zone, though, at the same time, the Government should stop the use of heavy weapons, he said.  There were still people coming out of the zone, although the numbers were lower than before.  After getting out, they had to go through a Government check point to get screened.  The screening itself could be observed by representatives of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but they could not monitor anything that occurred before the civilians arrived at the check point.  Allegations of brutality, therefore, could not be verified.  The physical treatment during the screening process and in the camps was “reasonable”, he said, adding that it was regrettable that press coverage was limited, as well.

Answering a question about the United Nations asking for a ceasefire, he said the Organization was calling for a peaceful, orderly and lasting end to hostilities.  The option of a ceasefire was not available under the circumstances. He said not only the United Nations, but the international community as a whole was trying its hardest to make progress in the situation.

He said the United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway were applying bilateral pressure, not only on the Government but also on LTTE, to let people out.  They seemed, however, to be stymied by the “military logic” of both sides.  The decision by the Government of Sri Lanka not to cooperate with Norway in its mediation role had obviously not been a helpful step.  It did not, however, stop the Government of Norway, or anybody else, from initiating contacts with LTTE if they chose to do so.

* *** *

For information media • not an official record