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Sri Lanka civilians' plight

April 28, 2009|Times Wire Services

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — The Sri Lankan government agreed Monday to stop firing heavy weapons into the war zone in the northeast to avoid injuring thousands of civilians trapped there, but it resisted growing pressure for a cease-fire in its war with the Tamil Tiger rebels. A pro-rebel website immediately accused the government of violating its promise by launching airstrikes on a village in the densely populated area.

With a truce appearing unlikely any time soon, here are some questions and answers concerning the plight of civilians in the war zone.

How many civilians are trapped?

That is a subject of great debate and confusion, in part because it is difficult for independent observers to enter the area. The International Committee of the Red Cross has said that fewer than 50,000 civilians are trapped, and the United Nations estimates the number at tens of thousands. Sri Lanka's government puts the number between 10,000 and 20,000, whereas the rebels say it's 160,000. Diplomats say the exact number is immaterial with so many in harm's way. The war zone is a tiny strip of northern coastline that the military says measures less than 4 square miles.

How many have been killed and wounded?

A U.N. working document says 6,432 civilians have been killed and 13,946 wounded in fighting since the end of January. A U.N. spokesman declined to comment on the report. The government has consistently alleged that the casualty figures are inflated to serve the Tigers' propaganda purposes, and the government and the rebels blame each other for civilian deaths.

How many have escaped?

By Monday, the military said it had registered more than 113,000 displaced people since the latest exodus began a week ago, and more than 200,000 since the beginning of the year.

How are conditions for those still trapped?

Dangerous if not outright deadly. The Red Cross has said the situation is "nothing short of catastrophic" for those in the tiny enclave. Food, water and medical care are in short supply, the agency says. That is to say nothing of the fighting.

What about those who got out?

The majority are still making their way to camps, the United Nations has said. The world body has warned that the exodus strains available resources and has already exceeded the capacity of existing facilities. The Tigers have accused the government of putting people into "internment camps," but the U.N. has said the sites are up to international standards.

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