The United States Thursday appealed to the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels to immediately halt fighting in the country's northeast to allow trapped civilians to escape. It warned civilian deaths would stain any potential peace accord.
The statement read at the start of a news briefing by State Department Acting Spokesman Robert Wood was the most strongly-worded of a series of U.S. appeals in recent weeks for the protection of Sri Lankan civilians.
Sri Lankan government forces, apparently aiming at a knock-out blow against Tamil Tiger rebels, are reported to have launched an assault on the remaining strip of rebel-held territory in the country's northeast.
The area had been designated a no-fire zone because of a non-combatants trapped in the area. U.N. officials and a pro-rebel website said government forces backed by helicopters were attacking rebel strongholds in the area.
Wood said the United States is deeply concerned about the danger to civilian lives and dire humanitarian situation and called on government forces and Tamil Tigers to immediately stop hostilities until more than 140,000 civilians are safely out.
He urged the government to halt shelling of the safe zone, allow in monitors to ensure the safe evacuation of civilians, and to give aid groups and news media access to camps for internally-displaced people.
Wood made clear the main burden rests with the Colombo government. "The Sri Lankan government, as the legitimate sovereign power, has before it an opportunity to put an end to this lengthy conflict. A durable and lasting peace will only be achieved through a political solution that addresses the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankan communities. Further killing, particularly killing of civilians, will not end the conflict and will stain any eventual peace. We urge the Sri Lankan government to employ diplomacy to permit a peaceful outcome of this conflict," he said.
The spokesman said the United States wants to see Colombo authorities politically engage Tamils who do not espouse violence or terrorism, and develop power-sharing arrangements so that lasting peace and reconciliation can be achieved.
Similar appeals have been made this week by France and Britain. A senior State Department official, acknowledging that criticism is directed mainly at Colombo authorities, said the United States is not pleased with government actions and the statement clearly reflects that.
He said the patience of outside parties trying to help resolve the conflict is running thin and the endangerment of civilians needs to stop.
Senior U.S. officials have held a series of consultations on the situation with, among others, fellow members of the so-called Tokyo Co-Chairs group on Sri Lanka, which includes the European Union, Norway and Japan, along with the United States.
Sri Lanka's military says it is on the verge of defeating the rebels, who have been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland for 25 years. The United Nations says both sides of the conflict may be guilty of war crimes.