Page last updated at 20:20 GMT, Tuesday, 27 January 2009

'Crisis unfolding' in Sri Lanka

A government soldier stands in a ruined street in Mullaitivu, northern Sri Lanka, 27 January
Media were allowed to film the empty, ruined streets of Mullaitivu

A major humanitarian crisis is unfolding in northern Sri Lanka, with a quarter of a million people trapped by fighting, the Red Cross says.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates that hundreds of people have been killed in fighting between troops and separatist rebels.

It called on both sides to allow immediate and free access to the combat zone for humanitarian workers.

The military say they are involved in a final push against retreating rebels.

Moving north from the captured rebel town of Mullaitivu, they are trying to secure the north-east coastline to encircle the rebels and say they hope to control the entire north within weeks.

The Tamil Tiger rebels could not be reached immediately for comment.

Access to the combat zone is tightly controlled, making it difficult to verify the actual situation.

'Fundamentally trapped'

Speaking in Geneva, the ICRC's head of operations for South Asia, Jacques de Maio, said the civilian population was paying the price for the conflict.

1976: Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam form in the north-east
1987: India deploys peace-keepers to Tamil areas but they leave in 1990
2002: Government and rebels agree ceasefire
2006: Heavy fighting resumes
2009: Army takes main rebel bases of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu

"We talk about approximately a quarter of a million persons who are fundamentally trapped in a very small restricted perimeter - 250 sq km [96 sq m] - which is the theatre of very intense combat," he said.

"They find themselves simply under fire and highly vulnerable. Access to medical care is almost non-existent at this point. They are in need of food, they are in need of shelter and most of all they are in need of security."

The ICRC based its figure of hundreds dead on body counts by its staff in local hospitals.

Access for aid workers was so limited, it said, that the ICRC's own presence in the region was virtually meaningless.

The ICRC wanted to evacuate 200 critically wounded people on Tuesday but did not receive security clearance.

Those patients, it says, now face death.

The UN secretary general and the European Union have also expressed deep concern for civilians caught in the fighting.

Ghost town

The military did take a group of journalists, including the BBC's Chris Morris, to the region on Tuesday.

Brig Nandana Udawatte, who led the capture of Mullaitivu, said that "mortar fire, indirect fire and close-quarter battles" were going on 1.5 km from the town of Puthukkudiyiruppu.

Pro-rebel sources have previously accused the army of killing hundreds of civilians with shellfire - allegations the military denies.

Our correspondent says that apart from soldiers on every corner in Mullaitivu, it is a ghost town. Most of the buildings, houses and shops are damaged or destroyed.

He says its capture is a big victory for the army but that the Tigers also appear on the surface undaunted, with the sound of artillery fire not that far away echoing down the empty streets.


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