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U.N. appeals for funds to help Sri Lankan Tamils

B. Muralidhar Reddy

Around 80,000 civilians who escaped the combat zone are being held in camps in Vavuniya

COLOMBO: The United Nations on Thursday issued an urgent appeal for funds to meet the critical needs of thousands of civilians fleeing fighting between the Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE in the narrow strip along the coast in Mullaithivu district.

Speaking from Colombo after returning from camps in the town of Vavuniya where around 80,000 civilians who fled the combat zone were held, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka Neil Buhne said teams were scrambling to feed, clothe, shelter, and provide water to “crowds of weary and hungry people.”

“I saw infants with dysentery, malnourished children and women, untended wounds, and people dressed in the ragged clothing they’ve been wearing for months,” said Mr. Buhne.

“We need funds for all the basics like food, medicine, water, sanitation, nutrition, shelter, and clothing. And we want to try to get kids as soon as possible back into school in order to give them some semblance of normality.”

The U.N. had appealed in February for $155 million in view of the anticipated increase in people escaping from the fighting in the north of the country, but received less than one third of that amount. Since Monday, more than 1,00,3000 people have escaped the combat zone.

“Many of these people were forced from their homes by fighting more than a year ago, and it is something of a miracle that they have survived such a terrible ordeal,” said Mr. Buhne. “We need to ensure that no more lives are lost by meeting their immediate needs, and beyond that to help them get back on their feet, so that they can eventually return to their homes.”

The U.N. says that over-crowding in the camps is now a grave concern, and has urged the government to make available more land and public buildings for accommodation. It wants the government to quickly identify and release from the camps people who present no security threat.

Mr. Buhne said that while some elderly have been released, “there are many more people such as the elderly, disabled, unaccompanied children and pregnant women who could be rapidly identified and released in order to reduce the camp population.” The U.N. has also urged the government to release U.N. national staff so that they can return to work.

While more than 1,70,000 civilians are now believed to have escaped the combat zone since January, the U.N. says that it estimates that tens of thousands of people remain trapped by fighting and have been without humanitarian deliveries of food since April 1.

The Defence Ministry said that with the 72,571 civilians who have exited and re-located elsewhere in cleared areas before the April 20 rescue operation, the total number of civilians crossing into the government-controlled territory as of Thursday noon reached 1,75,714.

In his briefing to the Colombo-based diplomatic corps Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said he had established an Emergency Task Force headed by the Additional Secretary, which will liaise with other Ministries and Agencies to identify the immediate and most pressing needs of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) and to coordinate the anticipated inflow of aid relief.

The Minister, welcoming the outcome of the informal briefing on Sri Lanka which took place at the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday night, appreciated its forthright condemnation of the LTTE as a terrorist organisation and its use of civilians as human shields and not allowing them to leave the area of conflict.

A note circulated by the Ministry said that initially each civilian is given a “pack” of goods, consisting of water bottles, high energy fruit juices, biscuits, dates etc. at the point of crossover. They are provided cooked meals during their stay at receiving centres before being accompanied to relief centres at Vavuniya or Jaffna.

It said that a civilian crossing over will be initially registered at a receiving centre by the military and then accompanied to a relief centre.

The Ministry said arrangements have been made by the Ministries of Disaster Relief and Resettlement and Nation Building with the assistance of numerous U.N. and other aid agencies to look after civilians once they reach Vavuniya.

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