The Sri Lankan government has been urged to hold back its final military battle in areas where tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped, the UN' chief humanitarian emergency coordinator said on Friday.
The UN's John Holmes recently visited the troubled island nation to gain first-hand information of the humanitarian situation in refugee camps.
The battle between the government and separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been raging since January, and the government was planning a final assault in the Vanni region held by the rebels.
While it was clear that tens of thousands of civilians were trapped in the region, there were no exact numbers available. The government put the figure at 70,000 civilians, the UN said 200,000 and the Tamil Tigers claimed 300,000 people were trapped in the fighting.
In addition, thousands of displaced people were living in camps while UN and relief groups tried to gain access for the distribution of food supplies.
"The risks from hunger and diseases are growing rapidly, in addition to those from the fighting," Holmes said in briefing to the UN Security Council.
Some 36,000 displaced people have taken refuge in government-held regions of Vavyniya, Jaffna and Mannar after escaping LTTE areas.
Holmes said there had been attempts through intermediaries to persuade the Tamil Tigers to allow those trapped to escape.
"I desperately hope these attempts will succeed very soon," Holmes said. "I also urge the government of Sri Lanka to hold back from any final military battle in order to allow time for the civilian population to get out safely, one way or another."
Security Council president, Japanese Ambassador Yukio Takasu, said council members encouraged UN officials in Sri Lanka to increase efforts to help the government and people displaced by the fighting.
The World Food Programme (WFP) announced on Friday that it had secured a sea route to deliver 40 metric tons of food, enough to feed 80,000 people for a day. The government designated a safe zone for WFP to deliver its supplies to Vanni.
WFP said another ship was expected in the same area on Saturday.
"Now the challenge is to sustain this activity and ship sufficient quantities of food to meet the needs of tens of thousands of people caught in the conflict," said Adnan Khan, WFP's representative in the country.