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Fears for civilians caught in Sri Lankan war -

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Fears for civilians caught in Sri Lankan war

The World Today - Friday, 24 April , 2009 12:25:00

Reporter: Oscar McLaren

PETER CAVE: The situation in Sri Lanka is getting increasingly desperate for the tens of thousands
of civilians who remain trapped inside the battle zone in the north of the island.

The United Nations says as many as 20,000 civilians are believed to be crammed into a battle field
which is now only 12 kilometres in size. They fear the death toll is rising sharply and they're
sending a humanitarian team in to monitor the conflict between the Government forces and Tamil
Tiger rebels.

The UN says for now it will focus on dealing with the 100,000 civilians who have escaped to the
relative safety of beaches and camps.

But neither side is showing any sign of heeding calls to ease the fighting.

Oscar McLaren filed this report.

OSCAR MCLAREN: There are still no media inside the conflict zone and there are no reliable reports
of civilian casualties but the UN fears that 20,000 civilians are still stuck amidst the fierce
fighting.

Antonio Guterres is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Well we are as you can imagine extremely worried with the fact that there is
still a meaningful number of people trapped in the battle area. All the attempts in order to have a
humanitarian pause and the LTTE (Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam) letting these people go, failed
and so these people is still trapped and we hope that the military operations were conducted with
restraint to avoid a blood bath.

OSCAR MCLAREN: The area where fighting is now taking place had been declared a 'no fire zone'. But
the Sri Lankan Government says it's begun fighting in the area to deal with rebels who have gone
there after losing major strongholds during recent months of fighting.

The UN says it's receiving reports that the Tamil Tigers are preventing people from leaving the
battle zone but calls by the UN for both sides to allow civilians to leave the area have fallen on
deaf ears.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: The secretary-general has been, as you know, extremely active - especially asking
for this pause and for the LTTE to release the people. Unfortunately his voice has not always been
attended but let's hope that we can avoid a bloodbath and let's hope also that these people can
find a future in dignity and safety.

OSCAR MCLAREN: The Sri Lankan Government says 103,000 civilians have been able to leave the
conflict zone. They're now stranded on nearby beaches, but according to Catherine Bragg, who is the
UN's assistant secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs, their immediate future is also very
uncertain.

CATHERINE BRAGG: Obviously with an expected influx of over 100,000 people and maybe even more in
the coming days and weeks arriving in the camps, we definitely will be needing extra campsites to
be able to accommodate.

We are currently in discussion with the Governments as to identification of new campsites and we
have urgently asked the Government to put that as a priority.

OSCAR MCLAREN: She says the UN needs access to all affected civilians.

CATHERINE BRAGG: We are asking for access to the conflict zone to assess the humanitarian situation
and to be able to provide relief supply in a meaningful way and we are also asking to be present in
those screening centres and to be able to witness the screening procedures of this large number of
people that has exited the conflict zone.

OSCAR MCLAREN: But the Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN Hewa Palihakkara insists his country is
already allowing aid organisations to help.

HEWA PALIHAKKARA: ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) is allowed in. ICRC is present
even in the heart of the conflict area. In addition, all other UN agencies have full access to the
Vavuniya area.

OSCAR MCLAREN: The secretary-general of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon says UN teams will be sent
to Sri Lanka.

BAN KI-MOON: The purpose of this new humanitarian team would be to first of all monitor the
situation and support the humanitarian assistance and try to do whatever we can do to protect the
civilian population who are caught in a war zone.

OSCAR MCLAREN: And he's renewed his call for the Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms.

BAN KI-MOON: And to do whatever to protect the civilian population. So many lives have been
sacrificed. There is no time to lose.

OSCAR MCLAREN: But the Tigers are showing no signs of surrender and with the Sri Lankan army
believing that it's close to the end of a 25-year-old civil war it seems unlikely that the fighting
will stop before many more lives are lost.

PETER CAVE: Oscar McLaren.