April 23, 2009 / 1:01 AM / 10 years ago

U.N. council voices "deep concern" about Sri Lanka

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council expressed concern on Wednesday about the humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka, where tens of thousands of civilians trapped in rebel territory are in imminent danger.

“The Security Council members, we expressed our deep concern about the humanitarian situation ... and the plight of the civilians trapped within the conflict area,” Mexican U.N. Ambassador Claude Heller told reporters after an informal meeting of the 15-nation council on Sri Lanka.

In a summary of the closed-door meeting, he said council members “strongly condemned” the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are apparently using civilians trapped in a 5 square mile (13 square km) strip of land as human shields.

Council diplomats said China, Russia and others had opposed the idea of a formal discussion of the Sri Lankan war, viewing it instead as an internal matter for the Sri Lankans.

That, they said, is why the council took no action apart from agreeing that Heller, the council’s rotating president, would speak informally to the press about the meeting.

British Ambassador John Sawers summarized the report the council received from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff Vijay Nambiar, who visited Sri Lanka last week.

Nambiar described a “desperate humanitarian situation,” he said. Sawers also said that council members welcomed the news that tens of thousands had escaped the conflict zone.

In the third day since troops blasted through a massive earthen wall built by the LTTE and unleashed the exodus, the Sri Lankan military said at least 100,000 people had been registered for onward transit to displaced persons camps.

VIOLATION OF INTERNATIONAL LAW?

Council members agreed the LTTE must allow U.N.-assisted evacuation of civilians trapped in the conflict zone, Sawers said. He added that council members agreed that the Sri Lankan government should accept U.N. monitors in the displaced persons camps so “the U.N. can assist and monitor the treatment of civilians as they leave the conflict zone.”

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice criticized the Sri Lanka government for not providing full assistance to all civilians who manage to escape the rebel-held zone.

She also suggested that both the Tamil Tigers and the government might be guilty of violating international law.

“The fact that both sides have been shooting at civilians as they leave the safe zone is one gross manifestation of the apparent violation of international humanitarian law,” Rice said.

Deputy U.N. humanitarian affairs chief Catherine Bragg told reporters that the United Nations had not yet received permission to enter the conflict zone or to monitor the screening of civilians who manage to escape the fighting.

Bragg also urged the government to release all U.N. staff currently being held in the displaced persons camps.

Sri Lanka’s Ambassador H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, however, said that the United Nations and other international organizations do have access to the conflict zone and the screening process.

He also told reporters that the U.N. staff in the camps were Sri Lankan nationals who needed to be screened like all others, although he acknowledged “it was taking too long.”

Editing by Will Dunham

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