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SRI LANKA: More civilians fleeing fighting

COLOMBO, 16 January 2009 (IRIN) - The residents of Mullaithivu, deep in the conflict-affected areas known as the Vanni, in the north, have witnessed an escalation of clashes between government troops and cadres from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the past year. Since April 2008, the conflict has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. According to UN statistics, as many as 230,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) remain trapped in areas east of Mullaithivu town, unable to flee to safety.

According to the Defence Ministry, 1,168 people from the Vanni are living at two welfare camps in Vavuniya District. The ministry also said the LTTE was forcibly preventing civilians from escaping the fighting.

The journey out of harms way, by sea or over land, is fraught with danger as seven civilians, including two children, discovered on 10 January. They were among a group of 56 trying to escape the fighting over land when they were caught in crossfire in Murasamoddai Village, Kilinochchi District, in the northern Vanni. Seven were killed while 49 others made it safely out of the conflict zone, the Army said in a statement.

"It is not that difficult to get caught in the fighting; the displaced now remain very close to where the fighting is happening," Sinnathmabi Shanmuganathan, an IDP who left the Vanni in November 2008, told IRIN.

The government, however, said there were signs of more civilians escaping the conflict areas. More than 790 civilians moved out of the conflict areas between 13 and 14 January, the largest such figure for a single day, the Army said in a statement on 14 January.

The Ministry of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services on 14 January said 32.4 hectares had been set aside to house the new IDPs in the Vavuniya District and about US$300,000 had been allocated for initial relief measures.

Surge in fighting

Since the new year, fighting has escalated in the Vanni, with government troops gaining control of key sites formerly under the LTTE - Paranthan, Kilinochchi (the former LTTE administrative and political hub), Elephant Pass, and most of the Jaffna peninsula. They are now poised to launch a fierce assault on Mullaithivu District.

A fact-finding mission in the Vanni between 29 and 30 December by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) found that civilians were in a precarious situation as the fighting escalated.

"The mission noted increasing vulnerability of the civilian population due to several factors including: ongoing fighting, new and repeated displacements into an increasingly compressed area, flood damage and reduced capacity and material to address urgent shelter and sanitation needs," IASC said in a situation report released on 12 January.

UN and other international agencies left Mullaithivu and the adjoining Kilinochchi districts in September 2008, at the government's behest, amid a deteriorating security situation. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the only international agency with a permanent presence in the Vanni.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has dispatched 10 food convoys into the Vanni since October. On 10 January, the latest convoy transported 811MT of food supplies, in 57 trucks, enough to feed 230,000 people for seven days, the government said in a statement.

Help for children

The 9 January Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF) newsletter stated that US$700,000 had been allocated to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) to assist school-children in the conflict-affected areas.

"Together with the Ministry of Education, the international NGO Save the Children, and a local NGO, Sewalanka Foundation, UNICEF is ensuring access to school and quality education services for displaced students in the conflict-affected Vanni area in the north of the country," it said. The funds would be used for the emergency construction and repair of temporary classrooms, the distribution of school supplies, establishment of school-level first-aid teams, school feeding, and the payment of teachers' incentives, to assist at least 30,000 students between the ages of three and 18, the newsletter said.

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Copyright © IRIN 2009
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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