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Thousands of Families Fleeing Conflict in Sri Lanka

The U.N. refugee agency is expressing deep concern over the safety of thousands of families fleeing fierce fighting in the north of Sri Lanka, as the conflict between government forces and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam reaches new heights. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The U.N. refugee agency says the situation in Sri Lanka is becoming increasingly dire. The UNHCR is calling on both the government and Tamil Tigers to take immediate steps to ensure the protection of those affected.

It says both sides must allow freedom of movement for those seeking safety from the fighting and ensure that the internally displaced are not targeted and not located near areas where there could be fighting.

UNHCR Spokesman, Ron Redmond, says aid agencies are finding it difficult to meet the increased needs of the civilian population as the fighting escalates and the number of people fleeing their homes increases.

"In addition, supplies of food, shelter materials, water and sanitation equipment, and fuel for the transportation of civilians are running dangerously low," he said. "Efforts by humanitarian agencies to replenish the stocks are being hindered by the strict restrictions on the transport of goods into the region. UNHCR calls upon the authorities to allow unhindered passage for essential supplies as soon as possible."

Redmond says exact figures are still sketchy on the number of people who have fled the conflict. But, he notes more than 12,000 families are reported to have been displaced in July alone.

He says many of these people have been displaced several times. He says people move ahead of the shifting frontlines to avoid the crossfire and to stay out of shelling range.

He says recently, U.N. access to the majority of the 10,000 displaced families in the Karachchi area was cut off because of security concerns. He says camps for the internally displaced are becoming overcrowded, therefore the UNHCR, local authorities and other agencies are trying to find other sites to accommodate newcomers fleeing the violence.