April 24, 2009 / 11:28 AM / 10 years ago

Q+A-Plight of civilians at end of Sri Lanka's war


(For a related story, see [ID:nCOL318519])

By C. Bryson Hull

April 24 (Reuters) - Diplomatic pressure is building for a humanitarian truce in Sri Lanka as the military and the Tamil Tiger (LTTE) rebels fight to the finish in a 25-year war, with tens of thousands of people still trapped in the combat zone.

Here are some questions and answers about their plight:

HOW MANY ARE TRAPPED?

That is the subject of great debate and confusion, but the International Committee of the Red Cross has said it is less than 50,000. The United Nations puts the number publicly at 50,000 and higher in private assessments. Sri Lanka’s government estimates the number between 10,000 and 20,000. Diplomats say the number is immaterial with so many in harm’s way. They are in a tiny strip of northern coast with the ocean to the east and a lagoon to the west, measuring no more than 13 square km (5 sq miles), according to the military.

HOW MANY HAVE BEEN KILLED AND WOUNDED?

A U.N. working document, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, says 6,432 civilians have been killed and 13,946 have been wounded in fighting since the end of January. A U.N. spokesman declined to comment on it. The government has consistently called casualty figures inflated to serve LTTE propaganda purposes, and both they and the rebels blame each other for killing civilians. Getting accurate information is nearly impossible, since very few people inside the war zone can be said to be free of rebel influence and nearly all independent observers have not been permitted inside.

HOW MANY HAVE ESCAPED?

By Friday, the military said it had registered more than 108,000 since the exodus began on Monday, when troops punched through an earthen barrier erected by the Tigers to block entry and exit. The government says more than 196,000 have left since the beginning of the year. Doctors treating the wounded pouring out say they are suffering from horrific injuries from shelling and gunfire. [ID:nLN532572]

WHY CAN’T ANYONE GIVE AN ACCURATE FIGURE?

Most estimates by aid agencies were based on the number of tents seen in satellite imagery of the no-fire zone. That number was then multiplied by four or five on the assumption each contained a family. Local employees of aid agencies also provided data. The government always called the figures inflated to serve the Tiger aim of manufacturing a civilian crisis to forestall military defeat. That said, the recent exodus exceeded the government’s mid-February government estimate of 70,000.

HOW ARE CONDITIONS FOR THOSE STILL TRAPPED?

Dangerous if not outright deadly. The Red Cross has said the situation was "nothing short of catastrophic" for those trapped and packed tightly into a tiny area. Food, water and medical care are in short supply, the Red Cross says. That is to say nothing of the fighting.

IF THINGS ARE SO BAD, WHY HAVEN’T THEY RUN?

The rebels have trapped them by shooting at those who try to escape, witnesses and a host of nations have said. The LTTE denies that. The government on Monday released video footage shot from an unmanned surveillance drone showing what it said were Tiger sentries firing at a packed group of several hundred people trying to escape along the beach.

WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHO GOT OUT?

The majority are still making their way from the front to camps, the United Nations has said. The world body has warned that the exodus is straining available resources and has already exceeded the capacity of existing camps. It has asked the government to clear more land to build more. Sri Lanka’s foreign minister appealed for international aid on Thursday at a meeting with diplomats, admitting the situation was "less than ideal". The LTTE has accused the government of putting people into "internment camps", but the United Nations has said the camps are up to international standards. The only exception is that people cannot leave, nor their relatives visit. The government says this is a temporary measure to weed out Tiger infiltrators, and pledges to begin resettling people by next month. (Editing by Dean Yates)





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