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Apr 23, 2009 at 08:50pm IST

Lanka refugee crisis grows; UN urges help

Colombo: Sri Lanka and the UN on Thursday made frantic appeals for assistance as the exodus of Tamil civilians from the war zone escalated into a grave humanitarian crisis even as the government claimed that the Tamil rebels were about to be crushed, ending one of the world's longest running insurgencies.

With the number of Tamil refugees crossing the 103,000-mark, the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka Neil Buhne gave a heart-rending account of the plight of the civilians after visiting some camps.

"I saw infants with dysentery, malnourished children and women, untended wounds, and people dressed in the ragged clothing they have been wearing for months," Buhne said in a statement, seeking urgent funds to meet the critical needs of the "crowds of weary and hungry people".

COLLATERAL DAMAGE: Refugees at the village of Putumatalan in Puthukkudiyirippu, northern Sri Lanka.

"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 to give them some semblance of normality," said the UN official.

Sri Lanka admitted separately that "we face an emergency humanitarian situation" and added that an estimated 15,000-20,000 civilians continued to be trapped in a shrunken and small area still with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

As the UN Security Council met on Wednesday to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said Colombo had won pledges of support from countries such as the US and India.

"With the unprecedented influx of large numbers of people in such a short period of time, obviously we do face an emergency humanitarian situation, and our friends in the international community are most welcome to provide emergency relief assistance, initially by way of semi-permanent shelter, water purification plants, sanitation facilities and medical assistance," Bogollagama said.

In a non-binding statement, the UN Security Council urged the LTTE to surrender and called on the Sri Lankan government to protect civilians and allow international agencies access to victims of the conflict.

According to the military, the civilian avalanche began Monday morning, with some of the escapees alleging that armed Tiger guerrillas had shot at them when they tried to leave for safer areas.

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"All along we have been waiting for the day when we can say the LTTE is defeated. Today is the day. It is a historic day," Bogollagama said, adding that the guerrillas' endgame was "being played out on the muddy waters on the western edge of Mullaitivu (district) coast".

The authorities, however, admitted that the last of the LTTE rebels holed up in a small strip of land were still offering "dwindling but constant" resistance. The pro-LTTE TamilNet website said a ship with relief material for the civilians could not reach the northeastern coast.

The LTTE was trying to prevent the army from overrunning their last positions where the rebel leaders are believed to be hiding. There is no word on Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE founder who has led a violent campaign to carve out an independent Tamil state out of Sri Lanka.

On Wednesday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa vowed that Prabhakaran would have to face "consequences" for all his acts of violence the past 25 years and for rejecting his surrender call.

By Thursday morning, the number of people fleeing the war zone since the beginning of this year shot up to about 175,700. These include over 31,000 children and 28,000 women.

The military said "elaborate arrangements were underway" to accommodate the swelling numbers of civilian refugees, whose plight has been described by some diplomats as appalling.

Many of them had been boxed in the LTTE area for about four months, unable to escape even as fighting escalated.

The government said efforts were on to coordinate with the ministry of resettlement and rehabilitation, security forces and selected state and private sector agencies to provide emergency assistance to the civilians.

Over 1,250 refugees were at the Vavuniya hospital and nearly 1,000 were warded in a hospital in the nearby district of Mannar. At least four other hospitals in the two districts were also teeming with patients.

The Sri Lankan government has rejected international calls to halt fighting even temporarily, saying pressure should be mounted on the Tigers instead to make them free the civilians in their control.

On Wednesday night, India asked Sri Lanka to ensure that the killings of Tamil civilians were stopped and underlined that it will do "all it can to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis".

"We are very unhappy at the continued killing of innocent Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka. These killings must stop," External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said.

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