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UN pushes for access to Sri Lankan battlefields

Associated Press

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Aid groups and the United Nations pushed for access to Sri Lanka's former battlefields today to treat and evacuate any wounded civilians stranded there, as the country celebrated a holiday to honour the military's victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Though the president declared the country free from terror Tuesday, government forces shot and killed two squads of rebel fighters — a total of eight insurgents — who were preparing ambushes in eastern Sri Lanka, the military said.

Pockets of rebel fighters are presumed still active in the east and officials suspect that sleeper cells are hidden in several cities — raising fears the war could continue in the form of an insurgency. Security remained tight around Colombo, which is filled with checkpoints and patrolling troops.

During the fighting, the government barred journalists and international aid workers from the war zone, allowing only the Red Cross to periodically send a boat to the area to deliver food aid and evacuate the wounded.

The Red Cross has appealed for access to the war zone to aid anyone still left there, but the government says it does not need assistance, according to Paul Castella, the head of the Sri Lanka office of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“Yes, we have concerns; yes, we are asking for access,” he said. “We have no information from the ground to document these concerns.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met with Sri Lanka's health minister Tuesday in Geneva and also pressed for access to the war zone, UN spokeswoman Elena Ponomareva said. But UN agencies said the situation on the ground had yet to change.

The world body has no information on any wounded civilians still in the war zone, said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN's humanitarian operations. But she said access needed to be granted to the UN or Red Cross “to evacuate any who remain.”

Mr. Ban said in a statement that the situation in Sri Lanka was of “grave and growing concern.”

“A good start would be to provide the UN and its partners with full, unconditional access to all civilians,” said Mr. Ban, who will visit Sri Lanka on Friday.

Several government officials declined to comment on the appeals.

As the military encircled the rebels and pushed ahead with the final battle last week, government doctors reported about 1,000 wounded civilians were trapped in a makeshift hospital — which has served as the area's only medical facility for more than three months — and the surrounding area with little food and no medical care.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said troops rescued more than 60,000 civilians caught in the fighting in the final days of the war. He said soldiers found several wounded people when they captured the area, but no one was in the hospital.

“There are no civilians still in that area. All of them have been evacuated,” Mr. Nanayakkara said.

Mr. Castella said 19 local Red Cross workers along with their families were missing.

“These people were together with the population there and taking an active part in the medical evacuations. They have the same fate as the rest of the population,” he said. “We don't know where they are and, as you can imagine, we are extremely worried.”

The UN has said at least 7,000 civilians were killed and 16,000 wounded in the recent fighting. UN refugee agency spokesman Ron Redmond said an estimated 80,000 people left the former war zone in the last three days, bringing the number of displaced civilians to more than 280,000.

About 230,000 were in 41 displacement camps, while another 50,000 were still being screened and registered, he said.

“There are several issues that need urgent attention, including overcrowding and the limited services available at the camps,” Mr. Redmond said in Geneva. “Civilians coming out of the conflict zone are sick, hungry and suffering from acute malnourishment and dehydration,” he said.

Aid groups said access to the displacement camps had been severely restricted since the weekend.

Their workers were no longer allowed to speak to the displaced civilians or bring vehicles into the camps, forcing them to carry in huge shipments of aid in by hand, one worker said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of government reprisals for speaking about the restrictions.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankans commemorated the victory over the rebels with a national holiday. The celebrations were relatively subdued today, after three days of dancing in the streets. Many people cooked pots of milk rice — a traditional celebratory treat — in the streets, handing out samples to passers-by.

In the predominantly Sinhalese town of Gampaha, people braved a heavy downpour to wave flags in the streets and to pass out sweets.

“We all lived with fear for decades; we are now free,” said Janaka Ranasinghe, who works overseas.

However, there were no street celebrations in Colombo's predominantly Tamil neighbourhood of Wellawatte, where many remained indoors.

In a victory speech Tuesday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa reached out to the Tamil minority, calling for political compromise to unify the island nation after the defeat of the rebels and the death of their leader.

But broad distrust between ethnic communities following a quarter century of warfare could make it difficult for Mr. Rajapaksa to accomplish that goal.

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