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SRI LANKA: UN official says Sri Lanka pledges to improve security, access for aid workers

COLOMBO, 9 August 2007 (IRIN) - At the end of a four-day mission to Sri Lanka, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said the Colombo government had pledged to ensure more security for humanitarian workers but said he would wait to see how well the commitment is kept.

Holmes, who ended his visit to the island today after talks with President Mahinda Rajapakse, also said the government had promised to improve access to resettlement and conflict zones for aid agencies whose movements are now hampered by strict regulations.

“The achievement of my trip will be seen, I hope, in the weeks and months to come when the government can implement some of the agreements we have reached about things like access and security,” he said. “The question in my mind is: Will they now be resolved in a constructive manner?”

He said he was satisfied with the results of his talks with the government, but added that he wanted “to see results on the ground which will make life easier for the humanitarian workers and for people they are trying to help.”

Holmes met top government, military and humanitarian officials for talks on the plight of people affected by the ongoing conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government forces in the north and east and those affected by the December 2004 tsunami.

“In discussions with the government, I made it clear that we wanted the most constructive and positive relationship as possible between the UN in general and the international humanitarian community in particular with the authorities here,” Holmes told reporters before he left the island.

The UN diplomat’s visit coincides with the government embarking on a massive resettlement and redevelopment programme for the eastern regions which took the brunt of the recent upsurge in hostilities between the security forces and the Tiger rebels.

Disarming of Karuna faction

Besides the thorny issues of ensuring safety and freer access for aid workers, Holmes said he had impressed upon the government the need to disarm the Karuna militia faction in the eastern province that has been threatening the humanitarian community's efforts to assist formerly displaced people resettle and restart their livelihoods.

“I found a clear determination that the disarming of the Karuna faction should happen. I impressed on the government the urgency for doing so as an important confidence-building measure for civilians and NGOs [non-governmental organisations],” Holmes said.

“Holmes’ visit was mutually beneficial,” Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told IRIN. “We were able to send a message to the international community that this country is a democracy and is part of international humanitarian efforts.”

“He endorsed that a lot of progress had been made and that there are still issues to be addressed but the structures to do that are in place,” the minister added.

Appeal to Tamil Tigers

Holmes also called on the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to desist from threatening or restricting aid workers engaged in delivering relief in the embattled northern districts that are partly under rebel control.

“I appeal to the LTTE to allow humanitarian workers to work freely,” he said referring to the recent abduction and release of two UN employees. “This is not consistent with international law. Humanitarian workers should not be targeted in any way.”

The government arranged a visit for Holmes to the strife-hit northern Jaffna peninsula which can be reached only by air or by sea. He was also taken to the east where he said he was touched to see the plight of people who fled when fighting flared up between government troops and the LTTE earlier this year, as well as those who were victims of the December 2004 tsunami.

Holmes said he took up with government officials the issue of protection for civilians and for aid workers and stressed that investigations into the killings of aid agency employees had to be concluded quickly.

“On the question of the safety of the humanitarian workers, I think I expressed myself very clearly about the need to tackle this, because it clearly has been a problem,” Holmes said, and added that up to 30 humanitarian workers had been killed in Sri Lanka during the past 18 months or so.

He began his visit here by attending a first-anniversary memorial service for 17 employees of Action contre la Faim who were killed by unknown gunmen in the eastern town of Muttur.



Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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