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SRI LANKA: More displaced as fighting flares up in northwest

COLOMBO, 12 September 2007 (IRIN) - The latest outbreak of violence between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in the northwestern district of Mannar, has forced at least 4,000 people from their homes, according to humanitarian agencies.

Civilians in Silavathurai and Mullikulam, two coastal villages in the district, fled when government troops advanced into the LTTE-controlled coastal area some 250km northwest of Colombo on 31 August.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) recorded over 3,000 new IDPs in Mannar on 7 September. UNHCR officials in Colombo said the numbers were growing as civilians kept arriving in areas north of the troop advance. Local aid workers in Mannar said the figure was bigger.

“Over 4,000 have been displaced, easily that number,” Duector Joseph, Mannar District coordinator for the Foundation for Co-existence, a local civic organisation, told IRIN. “Just during the weekend [8-9 September] about 800 who fled the fighting at Mullikulam came to the camps at Nanattan and Murukan,” he said.

With the new displacements in Mannar, according to the latest report of Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) for 30 August - 6 September, the district has a total of 15,820 displaced individuals, including 4,109 families.

Most of the newly displaced are being housed at two schools, Nanattan Government School and Don Bosco School, and Rasoolputhuveli Mosque, all of which are north of Silavathurai village, while some 1,500 civilians are staying with host families.

Aid agencies well prepared

Joseph said aid agencies were well-prepared for last week’s displacements in Mannar District as they had been responding to a situation of continuous fighting in the area since early July. In the last two months over 100 combatants have died in areas close to the new displacements.

Government officials and humanitarian workers say sufficient supplies are currently being provided to the newly displaced when they arrive at shelters. “So far there have been no shortages of food,” the government agent for Mannar, A. Nicholaspillai, told IRIN. “Rations were given according to the number of persons in a family,” he said. Local government bodies also handed over cash grants to the displaced, with each individual getting Rs 2,000 (US$18), according to UNHCR.

The government agent for Mannar said local authorities and humanitarian agencies are arranging for additional supplies to be transported to the district. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UNHCR have also been involved in assisting the displaced.

“We have begun helping these people along with the Sri Lanka Red Cross,” ICRC spokesperson in Colombo Davide Vignati told IRIN. “We have already distributed hygiene kits and kitchen kits and are currently making further assessments.”

The military advance into LTTE-controlled areas was complete within a few days, according to agencies, although no one can predict whether the violence will flare up again.

Assessing needs and providing assistance

“It is still too early to say how long they [the displaced] would remain,” Vignati said. The Defence Ministry has stated that its troops were consolidating newly-gained areas and they would be open to the public once clearing operations are over.

“UNHCR's main concern is the safety and security of the IDPs,” the agency’s information assistant in Colombo, Sulakshini Perera, told IRIN. “Right now the focus is on assessing needs and providing assistance for the people in displacement.”

The UN agency has already aired its concerns regarding the lack of access to IDPs due to security concerns and poor road conditions. The ICRC pulled out its officials on 3 September from the main crossover point at Uliyankulam that links government areas with those under Tamil Tiger control, citing security concerns.

“The poor condition of access roads are posing a considerable challenge to relief efforts,” she said, “although there are food reserves available here for the next two weeks, the indefinite closure of the Uliyankulam entry/exit point means that goods cannot be moved into the area.”

ICRC spokesperson Davide Vignati said no decision had yet been made on the return of ICRC observers to the crossover point, but the agency was in constant consultations with the government and the Tamil Tigers, he said.

Unsafe roads

“There are concerns about the lack of proper water and sanitation facilities at the two schools hosting IDPs,” UNHCR’s Perera warned. In addition to the Nanattan Government School and the Don Bosco School, IDPs are also being sheltered in a disused rice mill and Rasoolputhuveli Mosque.

Duector Joseph of the Foundation for Co-existence expressed to IRIN some concern about potential flooding in these temporary welfare camps. “Now the rains have started, if they continue that too will be a problem,” he said.

Fighting continued over the weekend in areas north of where the newly-displaced people are, with 10 combatants killed, according to the Defence Ministry. The clashes are taking place just north of one of the main access roads. Relief workers in the area warned that if the fighting continued supply convoys would have difficulty reaching the displaced and the number of IDPs could rise. “It [the fighting] could lead to increased displacement or secondary displacements,” UNHCR’s Perera said.

The displaced people appear unlikely to return home any time soon. The Catholic bishop in the area, Rayappu Joseph, said civilians feared to travel on the main roads. Twelve, including three children, were killed during a claymore attack on one of the main roads as they fled fighting on 1 September

“The sad incident remains a nightmare in our minds,” Rayappu Joseph wrote to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse soon after the displacements started. “It is highly unsafe to use this road until such time as it is declared safe by mine experts.”



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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