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SRI LANKA: Critical northern crossing point under pressure

COLOMBO, 5 December 2007 (IRIN) - The Omanthai crossing point 190km north of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, is the only gateway currently open between areas controlled by the Sri Lankan government and those controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and traffic through this key transit point falls off sharply each time the security situation deteriorates.

For example, in the aftermath of two Colombo bombs on 28 November that killed 21 civilians, security was quickly tightened throughout the island. At the Omanthai crossing point civilians in Tiger-controlled areas were not allowed through, although government officials and humanitarian workers have continued to travel in both directions.

“It is not a new restriction, but only those with a legitimate need will be allowed into government-held areas for the time being,” Sri Lankan military spokesperson, Brig Udaya Nanayakkara, told IRIN. There were also no restrictions on supplies moving north, he said.

The Omanthai crossing links Tiger-controlled Vanni in the north with the rest of the country in the south. According to government statistics, over 400,000 civilians in Vanni depend for basic provisions and medicine on goods from the south and on the ability to travel south for official or personal reasons.

A smoothly functioning Omanthai crossing point is critical to their lives and livelihoods. Included in this 400,000 population, according to a 22-30 November situation report of the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC), are 93,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in urgent need of food, non-food items and livelihood assistance.

“There is no other way, it is only through Omanthai that we get supplies,” Nagalingam Vedanayagam, the government agent in Tiger-held Kilinochchi district, told IRIN. “We can get rice and vegetables here… but everything else comes from the south.”

His counterpart in Tiger-held Mullaithivu District, Imalda Sukumar, said that the day after the new restrictions were applied at Omanthai on 29 November, trucks intending to sell rice in the south found it impossible to cross over to government areas. “They returned with the drivers saying they were granted no access.”

An essential route

The World Food Programme (WFP) transports over 300 metric tonnes of supplies through Omanthai every week, officials in Colombo said. Jean-Yves Lequime, WFP deputy head in Sri Lanka, told IRIN the WFP was constantly in touch with government military officials over security at Omanthai, acknowledging how important it is to maintain access through the critical gate.

“We do not have any alternate method, we have to keep this humanitarian gateway open to keep supplies moving,” he said. Along with supplies for civilians and IDPs, WFP now transports the bulk of the supplies for humanitarian agencies working in Tiger areas.

During a four-week period from 27 October, 26,000 people and 8,900 vehicles had passed through the crossing point in both directions, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) monthly bulletin for November.

“It is an invaluable conduit for the transport of commercial items and allows humanitarian action to be taken to meet the needs of people on both sides,” ICRC delegation head in Sri Lanka, Toon Vandehove, said in the report.

Situation “tense”, access restricted

Escalating fighting in the area and tightened security regulations have nevertheless resulted in frequently restricted access and sometimes total closure of the crossing point.

“The situation in the area remains tense. The ICRC hopes the entry/exit point can remain open,” Vandehove said. The ICRC pulled out its staff from Omanthai on the morning of 6 November due to nearby fighting, but returned that afternoon when both the government and the Tigers gave security guarantees.

ICRC officials maintain a monitoring presence at the gate to facilitate the movement of vehicles and persons through the narrow no-man’s land between government-and Tiger-controlled areas.

Closure of other transit points

The Omanthai crossing point has become even more critical with the closures of other transit points in the north. “Heavy fighting in early September near the Uliyankulam crossing point in Mannar District, 60km west of Omanthai, led to both ICRC monitoring staff retreating and to the indefinite closure of the transit point. It has remained closed ever since, putting additional stress on Omanthai.

In late September, the UN High Refugee Agency (UNHCR) had to re-route supplies to IDPs near Uliyankulam in Tiger areas through Omanthai after the former ceased to function.

“With the closure of the Uliyankulam entry/exit point, the UNHCR office in Mannar was not able to respond to an emergency in Manthai West, and instead assistance was provided by the UNHCR Kilinochchi office,” UNHCR information assistant in Colombo Sulakshini Perera told IRIN.

Fighting has escalated along the front lines near Omanthai since the 28 November bombings in Colombo and had claimed the lives of 48 LTTE rebels and five government soldiers just between 1 and 2 December, according to the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry.

“It has to remain open regardless of the fighting,” Vedanayagam, the government agent in Kilinochchi, said. “There is no other option or route available at the moment.”




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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