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Top Sri Lankan Official Denies Humanitarian Crisis


Sri Lanka is expressing appreciation for the offer of a humanitarian mission from the United Nations. But the government denies the international aid community's assertion there is a humanitarian crisis. No one, however, disputes that many civilians remain trapped on the small piece of land in the northeast where the rebel Tamil Tigers are putting up a desperate last stand.

Sri Lanka's government and military say they are doing their utmost to minimize civilian casualties after cornering the remnants of the rebel force that once controlled a large swath of the north.

The rebels appear on the verge of total defeat after a quarter-century violent quest to create an independent ethnic Tamil homeland.

Sri Lanka on Friday expressed appreciation for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's decision to dispatch humanitarian experts here to monitor the situation. But, in a VOA interview, Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona, questioned whether their help will be needed. He contends the government on its own can handle the situation.

"I do not think that there is a crisis in the northern part of Sri Lanka. We have a challenge and we have experience and we will deal with it more than adequately," Kohona said.

United Nations officials estimate as many as 50,000 civilians are trapped in the last piece of territory held by the Liberation Tigers of Tiger Eelam.

UNICEF's James Elder tells VOA News more children are dying every day and the situation in the north is continuing to deteriorate.

"They are trapped in a very small space," Elder said. "They are trapped amid fierce fighting and UNICEF's very real fear is that unless much more is done right done we are going to see that the worst is yet to come."

Punctuating its concern for the fate of the civilians, India - which has a large Tamil population -- sent two top officials to Colombo to meet Friday with President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sri Lanka continues to rebuff calls from abroad to halt the fighting for humanitarian reasons.

Foreign Secretary Kohona says experience shows the Tigers will not honor a cease-fire.

"What are we going to achieve with a cease-fire? The LTTE will simply not let anybody go. That is our experience. The world knows that. So I think a cease-fire will not achieve anything like what the humanitarian lobby is claiming that it would," Kohona said.

Government officials here predict it will take another week or two to totally vanquish the rebels as a conventional fighting force.

In the meantime, says James Elder, the UNICEF spokesman in Sri Lanka, the fate of desperate and innocent civilians hangs in the balance.

"Caught between competing military aims as this battle comes to its last bloody end, these people have had a lack of food, a lack of water, a lack of the most basic medicines. It's an unimaginable hell," Elder said.

Humanitarian workers say they are heartened that , according to Sri Lankan officials, more than 100,000 refugees have reached safety in the last week but want more done to facilitate the most basic forms of assistance for the hungry and sick, as well treating those wounded by gunfire and explosions.

U.N. documents estimate more than 6,000 civilians have died and more than double that number have been wounded in the fighting here over the past three months.
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