Page last updated at 17:20 GMT, Wednesday, 13 August 2008 18:20 UK

Desperate plight of Tamil civilians

By Ethirajan Anbarasan
BBC News

Displaced Tamil in Vavuniya
Many Tamil civilians are trapped between the warring sides

The claims and counter claims by Sri Lanka's warring parties in the current fighting have overshadowed civilian suffering and misery in the northern region.

Trapped between the advancing Sri Lankan military and Tamil Tiger rebels, who are fiercely resisting the offensive, thousands of Tamils living inside rebel-held territory have been made homeless and are wandering from place to place in search of safe havens.

No-one knows exactly how many civilians have been displaced since the fighting began last year, but it is estimated that more than 150,000 people are depending on the government and aid agencies for food and shelter in the north.

The UN refugee agency - UNHCR - last week warned that thousands of displaced people are in danger because of dwindling emergency aid stocks in the north.

Displaced Tamil women
Aid workers fear human suffering could intensify

The agency estimates that more than 60,000 people were displaced in July alone as a result of intense battles between the army and the rebels.

According to the UNHCR, supplies of food, shelter materials, water and fuel for transportation of civilians are running "dangerously low" for those attempting to escape the crossfire.

Stiff resistance

It is clear that the army has made significant gains in the last few months.

The Mannar district has now come under the control of the security forces and the rebels are in danger of losing strategically important naval bases and towns in other districts as well.

Unless there is a military debacle, it is possible that the government troops will gradually claw their way into the key rebel-held town of Kilinochchi sooner or later.

The strategy of the armed forces is clear. Heavy artillery shelling, prior to an operation, drives away the civilians and then they make their advance.

The silence of the international community... is disturbing
Sri Lankan analyst DBS Jeyaraj

They have also opened many battle fronts to spread out the rebel fighters. Naturally, their air power and numerical superiority give them a clear edge.

However, despite recent losses the Tamil Tigers still hold considerable fighting ability to launch surprise counter attacks.

Contrary to some military claims, their core fighting formations are said to be still intact and they can easily adapt themselves to protracted guerrilla warfare.

That's why the Sri Lankan forces want to go after the Tamil Tigers instead of capturing only the territory.

"You can't just push them into the jungles and wait. You have to search for them and completely eradicate them. Only then peace can come," the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapakse, told a British newspaper recently.

Obviously, this would leave many Tamils in rebel-controlled areas in further danger.

"The rebel military installations and civilian areas are mixed. If the army advances further and confines the rebels into a smaller region then civilian vulnerability will increase," says Sri Lankan analyst DBS Jeyaraj.

Civilian plight

The other option for the trapped civilians would be to leave the rebel-held areas.

Tracctor carruing furniture of displaced people
Many people end up constantly on the move to escape the fighting

But there are hardly any avenues. The key roads are blocked due to the conflict and passages through interior roads are dangerous due to possible roadside bombs and landmines. Also, it is not clear whether the rebels would allow them to leave.

With children, women, cattle and some belongings, people are moving from one area to another in large numbers, as there are no safe havens or established refugee camps.

Likewise there are no toilets or bathing facilities and people sleep in the open despite the sweltering heat and mosquitoes.

The efforts by humanitarian agencies to deliver more aid are hindered by strict restrictions on the transport of goods into the region.

But the government says enough supplies are being sent to the rebel-controlled territory.

"There are no restrictions and there is no shortage. We send food and other essentials as per the request of the senior government official in those areas," says Sri Lankan army spokesman Brig Udaya Nanayakkara.

No international support

No one knows when or how the conflict will end. But Tamils feel that the international community could have done more to help them.

"The silence of the international community, especially by neighbouring India, over the displacement and suffering of Tamils is disturbing," says Mr Jeyaraj.

With no sign of a let up in the fighting, aid workers and Tamils fear that human suffering is set to increase in northern Sri Lanka.

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