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SRI LANKA: Controversy over truckload of UNICEF biscuits ends

COLOMBO, 1 February 2008 (IRIN) - A UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) consignment of high-protein biscuits impounded by police a week ago on suspicion that it was going to the rebel Tamil Tigers has been released today.

The detention of the consignment, destined for malnourished children in northern Sri Lanka, came at a time of heightened security and scrutiny in the north as fighting between government forces and Tamil Tigers intensified.

The container with its driver and his assistant were stopped at Madavachchiya town, 150km from the capital, Colombo on 26 January. The truck driver had no papers to clarify the ownership status or destination of the goods.

“Police sources from Madavachchiya said initial investigations have revealed that high protein biscuits of this kind are used by combatants as rations,” the Government Information Department stated in a release on 28 January.

IRIN had established that the 39,000 packets of high protein biscuits (known as BP100 and manufactured by the Norwegian company Compact AS) were being transported by UNICEF to Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka at the request of Deputy Provincial Director of Health Services in Kilinochchi T. Sathyamoorthi.

“All relevant clearance was obtained before they [the biscuits] were moved from Colombo,” Sathyamoortthi said. “I can’t say why the driver forgot the papers, but the biscuits were for an ongoing programme,” Sathyamoorthi said.

Sathyamorrthi said authorisation had been obtained from all the relevant authorities to transport the biscuits, and that the health authorities had been distributing the biscuits in the Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu districts, both of which are under the control of the Tamil Tigers, since June 2007.

The beneficiaries were to be breast-feeding mothers and malnourished children - part of the Nutrition Rehabilitation Programme for Children with Severe Acute Malnutrition in the North and East, according to UNICEF.

The programme was launched in March 2007 by the Ministry of Healthcare and Nutrition after two surveys in 2006 and 2007 found high malnutrition rates among children in the north and the east.

Breakdown in communications?

However, security officials in Colombo told IRIN they were unaware of any such programme and of the particular truck transporting the biscuits. “No one had told the police, there were no papers,” military spokesperson Brig Udaya Nanayakkara told IRIN. “The biscuits definitely can be used for combat purposes.”

The police initially said the biscuits were being transported on behalf of the World Food Programme (WFP), but this has been emphatically denied by WFP, which said the consignment did not belong to it.

“We are very much shocked and appalled by reports in the media, which allege that the truckload of high-protein biscuits taken into custody by the police belonged to the WFP,” WFP Sri Lanka country director Mohamed Saleheen, told the media. “The WFP has nothing to do with this consignment.”

High rates of malnutrition

A survey in 2007 of 1,031 children from camps for the displaced found that 24 percent had moderate acute malnutrition, while 4 percent had severe acute undernutrition, according to UNICEF data.

The Ministry of Nation Building requested UNICEF to provide the necessary therapeutic supplements for the programme which initially covered the districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, in the north and Batticaloa in the east.

A review conducted by the Health Ministry in August 2007 found that severe nutrition levels had dropped to 0.8 percent from 6 percent in Batticaloa District, and to 2 percent from 4 percent in Jaffna District, in part due to the nutritional programme. The programme will be extended to two other districts, Anuradhapura and Ampara, later this year, according to the Health Ministry.

Not first time UNICEF scrutinised

This is not the first time in recent months that UNICEF has faced such scrutiny. In November 2007 a container of ready-to eat-meals transported by the agency on behalf of 12 UN and other agencies (including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, UN Development Programme, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the WFP), was impounded by customs when concerns were raised in parliament over their possible distribution to the Tamil Tigers.

Neil Buhne, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Sri Lanka, said soon after the impounding of those goods that such accusations could harm UN operations in Sri Lanka and that the meals were meant for emergency use by staff as per UN requirements.

“The container with the Meals Ready to Eat is still formally sealed [and impounded by the government]” according to Gordon Weiss, chief of communications at UNICEF in Sri Lanka.

This is the second successive week the UN found itself briefly in the crosshairs of its vociferous critics. The incident came only days after Sri Lanka’s second largest opposition party, the People’s Liberation Front, held a demonstration in front of the UN office in Colombo against recent critical comments made by UN Human Rights High Commissioner Louise Arbour about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.


Theme(s): (IRIN) Aid Policy, (IRIN) Children, (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Food Security, (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Health & Nutrition



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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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