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UN pulls staff from Vanni, aid workers fear 'bloodbath'

[TamilNet, Tuesday, 09 September 2008, 13:33 GMT]
United Nations staff have begun leaving Vanni this week after Sri Lanka’s government ordered aid workers out of the Tamil Tiger controlled region and told them to remove their equipment with them. The government move comes after the UN agencies said they were unable to advise civilians to vacate LTTE-controlled areas in compliance with a government directive to this effect. Over 160,000 people have been displaced in the past two months by Sri Lankan offensives and a humanitarian crisis is fast developing, aid workers said. And amid indiscriminate bombing and shelling, some aid workers are warning of an impending bloodbath.

Explaining the decision to expel aid workers from Vanni, Sri Lanka's disaster management minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said: "UN and other aid agencies being in the Vanni now is unfavourable to us at this time."

Last week the Sri Lankan government said it wanted Tamils in LTTE-controlled areas to move into government-controlled areas. The government called on the INGOs based in the Wanni to persuade the LTTE to allow civilians to leave for Government-controlled areas, the Sunday Times reported.

“UN officials are in the area only to ensure humanitarian assistance to those in need,” UN spokesperson Gordon Weiss told The Sunday Times adding that they were not there to advise the people on which direction they should move.

“Any person has the freedom of movement, and they can move where and when they want in search of safety and assistance,” Mr. Weiss said.

“It is difficult to persuade people to leave their homes, taking whatever they own and head for a place that will be alien to them,” he said.

“Convincing the civilians on the direction they should take is up to the relevant authorities or the parties to the conflict,” Mr. Weiss said.

The UN official confirmed that civilians were moving in large numbers deeper behind LTTE lines as the security forces continue to close in from several fronts.

Announcing the quit order for aid workers, Sri Lanka’s defence secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, said Monday that as no development work was taking place in the Vanni, there was no need for the aid agencies to continue being there.

If the aid agencies were allowed to operate in the north, the Tamil Tigers would use them as human shields to attack government troops, he said.

Gotabhaya warned the government does not want a similar situation to August 2006, when 17 aid workers of a French agency were killed in Moothoor after heavy fighting.

International ceasefire monitors blamed Sri Lankan forces for the execution-style killings of the 17 men and women.

The government said the ban would apply to all foreign aid workers in LTTE-held territory as well as their local colleagues who were not permanently resident in the area.

"We can't assure the security of these people," Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Rajapaksa told The Associated Press news agency. "We are taking precautions."

Disaster management minister Samarasinghe said Monday said his government could not guarantee the safety of aid workers "given the present situation."

"We asked them (aid workers) to leave the Wanni district immediately with all their resources," the minister said. "They wanted a week or two to comply."

"We have told them that we can still take care of the internally displaced people with our existing network of [government] officials," Samarasinghe said.

The UN said Tuesday it is “now evaluating its operations in the area with a view to relocating humanitarian staff. A precise timetable for the complete withdrawal of all staff is yet to be determined, but relocations will begin this week.”

“The UN notes that the Government recognizes it holds primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of humanitarian workers,” a statement added.

The Associated Press quoted many aid workers as saying their efforts at feeding and housing some of the 160,000 displaced civilians in the Vanni was crucial to staving off a humanitarian crisis.

The UN says it “remains fully committed to addressing the humanitarian needs of the civilian population in the affected areas, and will continuously monitor the situation to assess how this can be done under the circumstances.”

However, it is not clear what the UN can or is prepared to do, especially given its standing deference to host government’s wishes.

Meanwhile the executive director of the Australian Council for International Development, Paul O'Callaghan, told Radio Australia, he expects a sharp increase in casualties.

"This situation is likely to become a bloodbath in the next several weeks," he said.

"Apart from the direct military conflict, we would expect that many, many will die or be in extreme circumstances if humanitarian workers are not able to access this area."

"It was an extreme [humanitarian] situation even before the decision [Monday] by the government to exclude foreign aid workers."

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross urged “both parties to the conflict to do their utmost to spare civilians the effects of ongoing hostilities.”

“We are committed to staying close to those in need of humanitarian aid and to meeting their most urgent needs regardless of whether they seek refuge in government or LTTE-controlled areas," said Toon Vandenhove, the ICRC’s head of delegation in Sri Lanka.

Health-care facilities in the Vanni continue to operate for the moment, albeit in ever more difficult circumstances, the ICRC says.

Saying clean water and sanitation were the most pressing needs of the displaced, the ICRC quoted local government officials in Vanni as expressing concern about there not being enough shelter available for the displaced.


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