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ICRC Says Humanitarian Situation in Sri Lanka Worsening

The International Committee of the Red Cross says it is stepping up humanitarian assistance to thousands of civilians in eastern and northern Sri Lanka, as fighting between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels continues. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from ICRC headquarters in Geneva.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says the situation in the east and north of Sri Lanka has taken a serious turn for the worse in the last six weeks. The Jaffna Peninsula was cut off from the rest of the country by continuing heavy fighting for most of this time. A few days ago, the government and Tamil Tiger rebels allowed a cargo ship flying the ICRC flag to bring more than 1,500 tons of food and medicine to the besieged population.

But ICRC Delegate General for Asia and the Pacific Reto Meister says access to the area has once again been suspended. He has just returned from a week-long visit to Sri Lanka, where he met with government and Tamil Tiger representatives. He tells VOA, he was unable to persuade the parties to let supply goods enter the area.

“We are asking the parties to find a suitable compromise, or a suitable mutually agreed solution, because the longer this ‘embargo’ (in brackets) lasts,” said Meister, “the more dramatic the situation will become for that one-quarter of a million inhabitants of Jaffna."

Until the supply lines were cut, the Red Cross had been caring for 109,000 civilians in Jaffna, including 40,000 who have been internally displaced. The organization was providing medical care and basic goods, such as tarpaulins, hygiene kits, water and shelter.

Meister says the humanitarian consequences of the fighting and impact on the civilian population are immense.

"It affects civilians, large numbers of civilians that have been affected by previous confrontations and hostilities,” said Meister, “and many of them also have fallen victims to the December 2004 tsunami. You have people that are punished, it seems, or at least are falling from one drama into another."

Meister says many of the projects for reconstruction on the east coast have come to a standstill due to the conflict.

Media reports estimate 1,500 fighters on both sides have been killed and 1,200 wounded. More than 460 civilians reportedly have been killed and 635 wounded. Countless others have disappeared; many are presumed dead.

The ICRC currently has 12 expatriate staff in Trincomalee and another six in Jaffna. Reto Meister says the organization is stepping up its presence there, and is ready to assist 250,00 internally displaced people in the east and north of the country.