Free civilians, UN envoy tells LTTE

Expressing "extreme concern over civilian casualties", a senior UN envoy on Sunday called for a pause in fighting in Sri Lanka and urged the Tamil Tigers to free civilians and lay down their weapons.
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Updated on Apr 26, 2009 03:47 PM IST
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IANS | By, Colombo

Expressing "extreme concern over civilian casualties", a senior UN envoy on Sunday called for a pause in fighting in Sri Lanka and urged the Tamil Tigers to free civilians and lay down their weapons.

"The months of fighting during which the inhabitants of the conflict zone have been trapped have taken a terrible toll among the civilian population," UN Humanitarian Affairs chief John Holmes said, stressing the need to get out the tens of thousands of civilians still trapped in the conflict zone without any harm.

"I call on the LTTE with all the urgency I can to let out the remaining civilian population and lay down their arms; and on the government to exercise maximum restraint including no use of heavy weapons," a UN statement quoted Holmes as saying.

"We need a new humanitarian pause to get aid and aid workers into the combat zone. We must have access to all IDPs (Internally Displaced People) wherever they are, including in the conflict zone, and the screening process must also be made more transparent," said Holmes.

The UN statement on Sunday said Holmes who arrived in Colombo late on Saturday will meet with representatives of the government, the civil society and the donor community during his two-day stay in Colombo to discuss about the current situation in the island's north.

Sri Lanka, encouraged by a series of victories against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has vowed not to bow to any international pressure for a ceasefire until the rebels are completely wiped out and civilians under their control are rescued.

The state-run on Sunday Observer quoting the country's powerful Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that the ongoing military operation "will continue until (LTTE leader) Prabhakaran is caught and till the army captures the land completely".

"Almost 98 per cent of the civilians trapped inside the no-fire-zone (NFZ) have reached the cleared areas and the humanitarian operation of the army will be (continued) to liberate these people," Rajapaksa has been quoted as saying.

The defence ministry said that soldiers of 58 Division on Sunday captured Valayarmadam, a coastal village in the Tamil Tigers-held no-fire-zone in the north-eastern Mullaitivu district, further squeezing the LTTE into a small coastal land strip.

"Troops declared the area fully secured this Sunday. So far, soldiers have been able to rescue over 500 hostages," it said.

Valayarmadam is just six km short of Vellamullivaikkal, the last remaining LTTE hideout where thousands of civilians still remained trapped.

Nearly 110,000 people have fled the war-zone and come to the government-controlled areas since last Monday, taking the total number of Internally Displaced People (IDP) to over 180,000.

Although the government officials say that they were coping with the situation in providing the basic facilities to the IDPs, the UN said that the sudden outflow of such a large mass of people "threatens to overwhelm existing systems".

According to the UN statement, Holmes during his interactions here, will underscore "the urgent need for access by the UN Country Team to the conflict zone in the north-east... and to the screening centres through which tens of thousands of IDPs are passing on their way to the camps".

"Holmes will also raise with the government the issue of the 13 UN staff members currently being prevented from leaving IDP camps, despite repeated promises from the government to the UN that they will be released," the UN statement here said.

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