UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States accused Sri Lanka on Thursday of breaking promises to stop shelling a no-fire zone where thousands of civilians are trapped by fighting between separatists and government forces.
Sri Lanka rejected the allegation, saying the Sri Lankan military was not using heavy weapons to attack the separatist-held, no-fire zone in northern Sri Lanka.
“We are very concerned that the government of Sri Lanka continues its shelling of areas where there are large numbers of civilians, very close to hospitals, very close to civilian facilities,” Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Rosemary DiCarlo told reporters.
“We have urged the government of Sri Lanka to cease the shelling near civilian areas,” she said after the U.N. Security Council met informally behind closed doors to discuss Sri Lanka. “We’ve had promises, but we need to see results.”
Sri Lanka’s Ambassador H.M.G.S. Palihakkara rejected the accusation, though he acknowledged that the government was returning fire when attacked by Liberation Tamil Tiger Eelam (LTTE) forces from inside the no-fire zone.
“They (government forces) are not firing heavy weapons into the safe zone,” he said. “Because (Sri Lanka’s) forces have come so close to the military safe zone there is no sense in firing at short-range heavy weapons.”
“As you know, the LTTE is firing from the no-fire zone,” he said, adding that the automatic return fire might have resulted in some civilian casualties, but not deliberately.
As expected, the council took no action at Thursday’s informal meeting on Sri Lanka.
U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said dozens of civilians were dying every day and that about 150,000-190,000 remain trapped in the no-fire zone. He added that “forced recruitment” into the ranks of the Tamil Tigers continues.
DiCarlo and British Ambassador John Sawers were among the diplomats who expressed support for Holmes’ appeal for a temporary cease-fire to allow humanitarian aid into the no-fire zone and civilians out of the enclave.
The Sri Lankan envoy said that was fine with his government, but not the Tamil Tigers. “The Sri Lankan government is ready to let the civilians go today,” Palihakkara said. “The issue is the LTTE is not willing to let them go.”
DiCarlo, Sawers and other council envoys criticized the Tamil Tigers, a group that Western governments have listed as a terrorist organisation.
“We condemn the LTTE,” DiCarlo said. “And we certainly condemn the fact that they use civilians as human shields.”
U.N. diplomats said China and Russia are among those who oppose formal discussion of Sri Lanka, saying the fighting between Tamil Tigers and government forces represents no threat to international peace and security and was therefore no business of the council.
Sawers said it was not clear if the Security Council would take up the issue again, since it is not officially on its agenda.
The United Nations says the Tigers have forcibly kept people there as human shields or conscripts, and has warned the government against shelling the safe zone. It says 2,800 civilians have been killed since January 20.
The government says it is not firing into the no-fire zone and that the U.N. numbers are unsubstantiated. The Tigers say people are choosing to stay with them.
Human Rights Watch has accused the government of indiscriminately shelling the no-fire zone where the civilians are. It also said the Tigers were forcing most civilians to stay.
Reporting by Louis Charbonneau