Aid groups, UN push for access to displaced civilians in Sri Lanka

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Aid groups and the United Nations appealed Wednesday to be allowed to survey the aftermath of the final battle of Sri Lanka's civil war and pushed for unfettered access to some 280,000 Tamils displaced from the former combat zone.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Aid groups and the United Nations appealed Wednesday to be allowed to survey the aftermath of the final battle of Sri Lanka's civil war and pushed for unfettered access to some 280,000 Tamils displaced from the former combat zone.

While the country celebrated the crushing of the 25-year Tamil insurgency, the army clashed with two squads of rebel fighters in the east of the country, an area under the government's control for more than two years. The military said all eight insurgents were killed as they were preparing ambushes.

Soldiers manning checkpoints in the capital remained vigilant; the government feared sleeper cells might seek revenge for the death of rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and the battlefield defeat in the north, where he had ruled a breakaway ministate until early this year.

Pressure mounted on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to open areas that have been off limits to independent journalists and aid workers for months, amid reports that thousands of civilians were killed in the crossfire between the army and Tamil Tiger rebels in the final weeks of the war.

Since last weekend, aid trucks have been restricted from the largest camp, bringing the distribution of supplies there to "a temporary standstill," said Monica Zanarelli, the deputy head of operations for South Asia for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Until then, the Red Cross had delivered water, food, personal hygiene kits, baby-care parcels, emergency household items and kitchen utensils to the camp, known as Menik Farm, which housed more than 130,000 refugees, she said on the Red Cross website.

"There are several issues that need urgent attention, including overcrowding and the limited services available at the camps," according to UN refugee agency spokesman Ron Redmond. "Civilians coming out of the conflict zone are sick, hungry and suffering from acute malnourishment and dehydration," he said in Geneva.

Rishard Badurdeen, the minister for resettlement, said foreign access to the camps was restricted because fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - as the rebel group is formally known - were hiding among the refugees.

"There are some 3,000 LTTE cadres in the camp and we haven't finished screening," Badurdeen told The Associated Press. He said trucks bringing supplies were allowed into the camps and dismissed allegations that aid workers had been required to carry in aid by hand.

Zanarelli also said Red Cross officials had visited and registered more than 1,800 rebels who had surrendered. It was the first word on how many fighters had turned themselves over to the military. When inducted, rebels fighters vow never to be taken alive and are given cyanide capsules to be swallowed in the event of capture.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pressed for UN access to the war zone when he met Sri Lanka's health minister in Geneva on Tuesday, UN spokeswoman Elena Ponomareva said.

The world body has no information on any wounded civilians still in that area, but the UN or Red Cross should be granted access "to evacuate any who remain," Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN's humanitarian operations, said Wednesday.

The Red Cross also appealed for permission to aid anyone left on the battlefield, said Paul Castella, the head of the Sri Lanka office of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said troops had evacuated more than 60,000 civilians caught in the fighting and that no wounded remained behind.

"There are no civilians still in that area," Nanayakkara said.

Ban said in a statement that the situation in Sri Lanka was of "grave and growing concern."

"A good start would be to provide the UN and its partners with full, unconditional access to all civilians," said Ban, who has asked to see the camps when he visits Sri Lanka on Friday.

The UN has said at least 7,000 civilians were killed and 16,000 wounded in the recent fighting. Redmond said an estimated 80,000 people had left the former war zone in the last three days, bringing the number of displaced civilians to more than 280,000.

About 230,000 were in 41 displacement camps, while another 50,000 were still being screened and registered, he said.

The rebels fought for more than a quarter century for a separate Tamil state in the north and east. According to UN estimates, the conflict killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people, Byrs said.

Nineteen local Red Cross workers who had taken part in earlier evacuations and medical emergencies were missing, along with their families, Castella said . "We don't know where they are and, as you can imagine, we are extremely worried."

In the capital, Sri Lankans commemorated the victory with a national holiday. People cooked pots of milk rice - a traditional treat - and handed it out to passers-by on the streets.

The mood was sombre in Colombo's Tamil neighbourhoods, where most people stayed indoors.

"It is natural for people to celebrate when their wishes come true. But some behave in a way to hurt the Tamils," said Suresh Kumar, a 36-year-old Tamil shopkeeper. "Their thinking seems to be, 'All Tamils are terrorists and we have defeated you,' and this will only increase hatred."

 
 
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