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UNHCR Concerned About Safety of Sri Lankans Fleeing Fighting


The U.N. refugee agency reports thousands of people are fleeing rebel-held land on Sri Lanka's east coast toward government-controlled areas of Batticaloa District. The UNHCR says it is very concerned about the safety of civilians remaining in Vaharai, the region from which people are fleeing. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The U.N. refugee agency reports several thousand of an estimated 9,500 people remaining in Vaharai have fled. It says they are reportedly fleeing intensified fighting as government forces advance on rebel positions. The area has seen months of heavy fighting.

Because of the dangers, UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmond, says aid workers have only had limited access to the area since October. He says only one humanitarian convoy was able to get through with relief assistance in late November.

"Our staff are out in the field now trying to verify the numbers fleeing and their exact location, and also to start arranging assistance," he said. "UNHCR is very concerned about the safety of any civilians remaining in Vaharai, as well as those in other areas across Sri Lanka's conflict-riddled north and east. We call on both parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians and their freedom of movement."

Redmond notes this is the second large-scale movement out of Vaharai in a month. In late December, he says over 20,000 civilians previously trapped by fighting between Sri Lankan forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels managed to cross swollen rivers and jungle paths. He says they fled into government-controlled areas of Batticaloa District to the south of Vaharai.

"Since then, UNHCR and its partners have been working with local authorities to set up emergency sites to host the new arrivals, allowing schools which were initially sheltering the displaced to re-open in a matter of weeks," he said. "In late December and early January, UNHCR distributed basic household items to over 5,000 families. We have more stocks to help the latest arrivals."

The UNHCR estimates nearly half a million people are displaced by conflict in Sri Lanka, including more than 200,000 displaced by violence since April.

Redmond says people often are trapped by the fighting and are unable to get out of harm's way. That is why, he says, the U.N. refugee agency is appealing to both warring parties to let people leave the combat zones and reach safety.