Sri Lanka’s military says it is the saviour of civilians trapped by fighting with Tamil Tiger rebels, but still insists on blocking all access to refugees who manage to escape.
The United Nations estimates that 100,000 Tamil civilians have fled this past week from the tiny sliver of coastline where government troops have cornered the shattered remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
But it also believes up to 50,000 remain stuck in the combat zone.
Under growing international pressure to halt its final offensive against the LTTE, Sri Lanka says the rebels are using the civilians as a human shield and insists the army is engaged in the “largest hostage rescue operation in history”.
On Friday, the Sri Lankan authorities partially eased a strict media ban and escorted a group of local and foreign journalists to the very edge of the combat zone in a small coastal village called Puttumatalan.
While stressing that civilian safety was a priority, the army refused to allow reporters contact with thousands of recently escaped refugees living in desperate conditions in the open air and under strict military guard.
“We do not prevent journalists from talking to refugees,” argued military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara.
“But these people who have just arrived have not been cleared yet. They can be dangerous,” he said.
According to the army, large numbers of Tamil fighters have swapped their fatigues for civilian clothes in order to blend in with the refugees.
“As far as the humanitarian situation is concerned, we will check these people physically, provide them with food and medicines. Then they will be taken to refugee centers,” said Nanayakkara.
Many will end up in camps or the state-run hospital in the town of Vavuniya, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) away. But even there media contact with the civilians is prohibited.
A British doctor working for Medecins Sans Frontieres in Vavuniya said his team at the hospital had been completely overwhelmed by the sudden influx of sick and injured people.
“The military do not allow independent sources and independent inquiries. “They are giving their own version,” said Chula Srilal, spokesman for the Free Media Movement (FMM) in Sri Lanka.
“Nobody knows what the actual situation is. Only those people (the refugees) know,” Srilal said.
The policy of isolating civilians was addressed by the White House on Friday in a statement that urged an immediate cessation of hostilities.
“We call upon the government of Sri Lanka to stop ... blocking international aid groups and media from accessing those civilians who have managed to escape,” the statement said.
The army says it has avoided civilian casualties and stresses that it has refrained from using heavy artillery in a bid to avoid the loss of innocent life.
However, one refugee who journalists briefly managed to approach during their tour spoke of being shelled by both sides.
The United Nations estimates that as many as 6,500 non-combatants may have been killed and another 14,000 wounded in the fighting since the beginning of the year.
For millions of others the conflict has brought total ruin, as witnessed on the road from the LTTE’s former political capital Kilichochchi to Puttumatalan, which passed through scenes of utter desolation.
There were abandoned villages in which no structure had been spared the scars of heavy fighting, the shells of burned-out cars and trucks, thick tropical vegetation scorched into wasteland, and the only sign of life the odd goat or stray dog.
Nanayakkara acknowledged that such destruction must probably have involved civilian casualties, but insisted that the army, which is almost 100 percent recruited from Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese community, bore no ill will towards the minority Tamils.