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Heavy Fighting Continues in Northeastern Sri Lanka


Sri Lankan government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels are engaged in continued heavy fighting for control of an irrigation channel in the east of the country. Aid officials in the area are concerned about a growing humanitarian crisis facing tens of thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting.

Officials from the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers agree that water from a disputed irrigation channel resumed its flow Wednesday, after two weeks of heavy fighting - but they agree on little more.

The two sides continued to exchange artillery fire Thursday for control of the channel, which provides water to some 60,000 people on government-held land. Each side accuses the other of inflicting heavy casualties on civilians in the Trincomalee district, where the dispute is centered.

Aid workers estimate that up to 50,000 people have been driven out of their homes, seeking shelter in schools, mosques and churches. But the violence has prevented aid groups from reaching all the camps, so they have yet to determine the full scale of the humanitarian crisis.

Katey Grusovin, a spokesperson for the United Nations Children's agency says aid groups are trying to reach displaced people before there is a serious outbreak of disease.

"When you've got thousands of people cramped into incredibly small spaces, having not enough latrines and not enough water and so on, then you have the perfect environment for disease to spread and spread very, very quickly," said Grusovin.

The civilian population in Trincomalee district is especially vulnerable, Grusovin says, because of a series of recent calamities.

"They've suffered multiple displacements in recent years - not just from the previous conflict, but also from the tsunami, the flooding recently, and now this. And they've lost everything," said Grusovin.

The Tamil Tigers say they reopened the irrigation channel Wednesday after an appeal by a senior Norwegian peace envoy. Sri Lankan military officials, however, say their forces are in control of the reservoir.

The fighting, which has now entered its third week, is the worst since the government and the rebels signed a ceasefire in 2002, intended to bring an end to two decades of civil war.

The Tamil Tigers launched a campaign for independence for predominantly Tamil areas in the north and east of the country, because of what they said was oppression by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority.

Analysts say that the recent round of fighting threatens to restart the broader conflict, which has already claimed 60,000 lives.