What happens when the ultimatum expires?

April 21, 2009

In a few hours (2:30 A.M. New York time), the 24-hour ultimatum issued by the Sri Lankan military on Monday to the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (also known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers) expires.  The Tigers have been told to surrender or, according to a military spokesman, “Thereafter will be a military course of action.  That is the best option.”  I’m deeply worried, not for the Tigers but for the civilians trapped with them.

The Tigers are confined by the military in a small pocket of land in northeastern Sri Lanka.  It’s about twice the size of Central Park in New York.  It had been designated earlier as the “no-fire zone” by the Sri Lankan government, who had urged civilians trapped in the war zone to flee there as the government’s offensive was steadily shrinking the LTTE-held area over the past several months.

Trapped with the Tigers are thousands of civilians, who’ve been used by the Tigers as human shields and a source for forced recruitment.  What will happen to the civilians when the “military course of action” begins?

If you believe Reuters, the military will use snipers around the edge of the no-fire zone to pick off Tigers trying to block people from fleeing.  But will they be so careful?  It may depend on how many civilians are left in the no-fire zone.  We don’t know exactly how many there are.  As AI has reported, the Sri Lankan government has sealed off the conflict zone, denying aid workers and independent human rights observers access to the area.

The Sri Lankan military did have a dramatic success on Monday, reportedly breaching an earthen wall erected by the Tigers, which resulted in over 39,000 people fleeing to the government-held territory.  The government on Sunday had said that nearly 70,000 civilians had been held hostage by the LTTE.  So you would think that would leave about 30,000 or so?  But the Sri Lankan Army Chief was reported as saying on Monday that “only a few” civilians were left in the no-fire zone.  Does that mean the military won’t be so careful and will start using more indiscriminate tactics?  I certainly hope not.  Like UNICEF, I hope the worst is not yet to come in Sri Lanka.