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Lanka's war-displaced live under trees

There is no room for thousands of new war-displaced in crammed refugee camps in Sri Lanka's east and many have fled rebel-held territory.
Reuters | By HT Correspondent, Colombo
UPDATED ON MAR 13, 2007 04:31 PM IST

There is no room for thousands of new war-displaced in crammed refugee camps in Sri Lanka's east, so many are sheltering under trees or in schools and churches, aid workers said on Tuesday.

More than 40,000 people have fled rebel-held territory in the eastern district of Batticaloa over the past week as the military seeks to drive Tamil Tiger rebels from the area amid a new chapter in a two-decade civil war.

But the exodus comes on the heels of massive displacement earlier in January, when the army captured the former coastal rebel stronghold of Vakarai further north, and rudimentary camps are already overflowing with around 80,000 people, taking the overall number of displaced to well beyond 100,000.

"Most of them are under trees," said Basil Sylvester, district officer for the main aid agency umbrella group, the Consortium for Humanitarian Agencies in Batticaloa.

"When they get to Batticaloa, they don't know what to do. Some are in schools and churches. Many are staying with relations and friends."

The military continued on Tuesday to exchange sporadic mortar and artillery fire with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters who are holed up in pockets of jungle west of Batticaloa town, and refugees continued to trickle into Batticaloa from the south and west.

"We are still clearing the area west of Batticaloa (of Tigers)," said military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe. "When they fire mortars, we retaliate."

Samarasinghe said the government was seeking to resettle thousands of displaced in newly-captured Vakarai to make way for new arrivals, but there were only 35 buses to hand and it was a gradual process.

"They are trying to push them out to Vakarai to resettle them as soon as possible," he said. "Most of them want to go back to restart their work. But they can only move out around 500 people a day."

The rebels accuse the military of mounting offensives to capture territory that belongs to them under the terms of a tattered 2002 truce, and have warned of a bloodbath throughout the island. The army argues it is liberating civilians, accusing the Tigers of using them as human shields.

Both sides have repeatedly ignored calls from the international community to halt a war that has killed around 68,000 people since 1983 -- and around 4,000 in the past 15 months.

A host of aid organizations including United Nations agencies, the World Bank, Oxfam and Save the Children on Monday voiced alarm at the rising numbers of displaced, which the Red Cross says is a record for the area.

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee Country team called on both sides to safeguard civilians, who are caught in the crossfire and continue to pay a heavy price, with hundreds killed over the past year -- and comply with international law.

Rights groups are alarmed at a surge in abuses, kidnappings and extrajudicial killings blamed on both sides, and are lobbying the United Nations Human Rights Council for a human rights monitoring mission to be sent to the island.

The Tigers say they are fighting for an independent state for minority Tamils in north and east Sri Lanka, which President Mahinda Rajapaksa has rejected out of hand, and analysts fear the war will deepen and scare off investment in the $23 billion economy.

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