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UN, Aid Agencies Withdraw from War-Battered Northern Sri Lanka


International aid agencies are withdrawing from Sri Lanka's war-battered northern region, as fighting intensifies between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels. Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi that the withdrawal comes a week after the government ordered aid workers to quit the region.

The United Nations and other aid agencies pulled out their personnel, Tuesday, from territory held by Tamil Tigers in northern Sri Lanka.

U.N. agencies and about a dozen other aid groups were providing food aid, clean water and other emergency needs to about 160,000 people who have fled their homes because of the fighting between the rebels and the military.

U.N. spokesman in Colombo, Gordon Weiss, says the escalation in fighting in recent weeks has made it too dangerous for aid workers to operate in Killinochi. He says the aid workers will relocate to another town.

"It's going to leave a vacuum that needs to be filled," noted Weiss, "we are much more effective, we work much better when we are close to our beneficiaries, close to the people who need that help, but unfortunately it is just not possible."

Last week, the government ordered aid workers to quit rebel-held areas, saying it could not guarantee their safety as it pushes ahead with a major offensive to capture the rebel stronghold, Killinochi. The government says it can care for the displaced people.

But, earlier this month, hundreds of civilians protested against the departure of aid workers, blocking traffic to prevent U.N. vehicles from leaving the area.

The head of Colombo's Center for Policy Alternatives, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, says the departure of international aid agencies will make the civilians vulnerable to pressure from both the military and the rebels. He says the government wants the civilians to leave rebel-held areas to isolate the guerrillas. On the other hand, the rebel group, also known as the LTTE, wants them to stay.

"If the population does not move out as the government would like them to move out of rebel-held territory, then the fear is the there could be some sort of siege tactic employed to try to get them out," Saravanamuttu said. "On the other hand, the LTTE stands accused of wanting to keep the civilians in as a civilian shield against the advancing army. They (civilians) are caught between the two key protagonists here who have no great regard for their safety and welfare."

Monday, President Mahinda Rajapakse ruled out negotiations with Tamil Tiger rebels and expressed confidence that the military will soon crush the guerrillas. Observers say the rebels will withdraw into the jungle to mount a guerrilla war if the military captures their strongholds in the north.

The rebels have been fighting for a quarter century for an autonomous homeland for the minority Tamil community.

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