No relief for Sri Lanka's trapped civilians

April 28, 2009

When I first heard this morning that the Sri Lankan government had announced that “combat operations have reached their conclusion” in the government’s offensive against the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in northeastern Sri Lanka, I felt a surge of hope.  Maybe the thousands of civilians trapped in the 5 square-mile area still held by the Tigers would be safe?  Maybe the government will reciprocate the unilateral ceasefire declared by the Tigers yesterday, so all the civilians could leave the war zone safely?

Alas, the hope didn’t last long.  The government said shortly thereafter that the earlier announcement wasn’t intended as a ceasefire declaration and that the army would keep fighting.  It simply meant a change in tactics:  the government will no longer use heavy weapons and aerial attacks which could cause civilian casualties.  Of course, earlier, they had also said that all the civilian casualties had been caused by the Tigers.  So today’s announcement could be seen as an implicit admission by the government that their earlier statement was inaccurate.  The Tigers claimed later that the government carried out air strikes against the Tiger-held area today, in contradiction of their pledge not to use aircraft.  Since there are no independent observers in the war zone, it’s difficult to verify either side’s claims.

Also in the news today was a report that the Sri Lankan government has denied access to the war zone to a U.N. team currently in the country.  Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had announced that he was sending a humanitarian team to the war zone to assess the situation and try to protect the trapped civilians.  Today, a senior U.N. official visiting Sri Lanka told reporters that the U.N. had not reached an agreement with the Sri Lankan government to allow the team into the war zone.

The Sri Lankan government’s pledge not to use heavy weapons or aerial attacks should be welcomed.  If they live up to it, it might increase the chances of saving the 50,000 civilians still trapped by the Tigers in the war zone.   But we still need both sides to agree to let the civilians leave and to work out the best method of doing so, as soon as possible.  Anything else risks more civilian casualties.