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Aid Ship Departs for Sri Lanka's Besieged Jaffna Peninsula

A Red Cross ship has left the Sri Lankan capital, carrying food and essential supplies for tens of thousands of civilians trapped on the Jaffna Peninsula by fighting between government troops and the Tamil Tiger rebels. The Red Cross also says it will evacuate foreign nationals from the region.

Aid officials say the cargo ship provided by the Sri Lankan government is carrying 1,500 tons of food and 15 tons of medical supplies. It is intended to help 350,000 people on the Jaffna Peninsula facing food shortages.

The ship is flying a Red Cross flag. After delivering the supplies, it is expected to evacuate foreign nationals - most of them aid workers. They have been trapped in Jaffna by nearly two weeks of fighting between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers.

Jaffna is the second front to open in less than a month, calling into question a 2002 cease fire agreement that both sides claim to uphold.

The fighting began last month in Trincomalee district on the east coast, over control of a water reservoir.

The United Nations estimates that the clashes have driven at least 170 thousand civilians from their homes to the safety of refugee camps, where provisions are scarce.

Palitha Kohona, the secretary-general of the government's peace secretariat, places the blame for the humanitarian crisis firmly on the Tamil Tigers, also known as the L.T.T.E.

"Of course the unfortunate part of this is that the L.T.T.E. callously creates the problem and leaves it to the government to resolve. And the government, because it is a responsible government, has taken up this challenge and is providing relief supplies," Kohona said.

The ship left late Tuesday and is expected to arrive in Jaffna Thursday. Officials say bad weather kept it from setting sail on Saturday or Sunday.

The Tamil Tigers blame the government for the recent surge in fighting, which has led to the aid crisis.

Officials say they hope to return most of the people displaced by fighting to their homes before the rainy season begins in northern and eastern Sri Lanka in the next month.

Officials say fighting in Jaffna has eased in the past three days after 12 days of fierce clashes.

Fears are high that the renewed fighting could plunge Sri Lanka back into its civil war, which began in 1983. The Tamil Tigers started their armed campaign against the government because of what they say is oppression of the ethnic Tamil minority by the Sinhalese majority.