Sri Lanka: ICRC extremely concerned about the human cost of conflict

Although neither the Sri Lankan government nor the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have officially renounced the ceasefire of February 2002, the ICRC's delegate-general for the Asia-Pacific said that the situation on the ground was now clearly illustrative of a non-international armed conflict.

He said those not participating in the hostilities must be protected at all times.

Speaking at a press conference at the ICRC's Geneva headquarters after returning from a five day mission to Sri Lanka, Reto Meister underlined the role the ICRC continues to play as a neutral intermediary and emphasized the trust placed in the institution by both sides. He said this often allows it unique access to those in conflict zones, although recent security considerations have hampered movements in some areas.

He said the ICRC is extremely concerned about the humanitarian consequences of the fighting. Recent clashes near Trincomalee and Batticaloa in Eastern Province and fighting on the Jaffna peninsula have resulted in many fatalities and the displacement of civilians.

The ICRC has access to around 110,000 displaced people, including about 50,000 in Trincomalee and 35,000 in Batticaloa. The total number of displaced is higher, with estimates varying between organizations.

Mr Meister said the ICRC's ability to deliver more aid to the Jaffna peninsula was complicated by a lack of agreement among the two parties about whether access should be by sea or road. A cargo ship flying the ICRC flag did manage last week to deliver to the peninsula 1,500 metric tonnes of food and medicines provided by the Sri Lankan governme nt and the World Food Programme.

Further supplies are now needed for both the resident and displaced population in Jaffna which has been cut off for three weeks. The ICRC continues to be concerned about the lack of access to Jaffna.

In partnership with the Sri Lanka Red Cross, the ICRC aims to assist up to 200,000 residents and displaced people affected by the conflict by supplying water and shelter and by strengthening health structures where necessary. A surgical team is to be sent to the Vanni, in the north of Sri Lanka.

More than 150 people have been registered as detained by the ICRC in the last few weeks and visited by delegates. The organization has also facilitated the evacuation of the wounded across frontlines and has also evacuated some civilians from areas where there is fighting.

Staffing levels in Sri Lanka have already been increased and will be further boosted.

  The ICRC has also set up a special family links website for this conflict at www.familylinks.icrc.org.