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Update No. 97/01 on ICRC activities in Sri Lanka

30-05-1997 Operational Update

 Troops launch major offensive in the north  

On 13 May the Sri Lankan armed forces launched a large-scale military operation in the north of the country. Ground troops, armoured vehicles, artillery and air support were employed with the aim of re-opening a supply route to the Jaffna peninsula across the LTTE-controlled Vanni region, as well as recovering some of the rebel-held territories in the area.

 The ICRC calls for greater respect for international humanitarian law  

The delegation in Colombo had earlier appealed to all parties to the conflict for stricter compliance with international humanitarian law. The ICRC stressed the need to spare the lives of prisoners and to treat them with humanity, and to care for the wounded, both military and civilian. The delegation also called upon the governmental forces and the LTTE to distinguish between civilian and military targets and to facilitate humanitarian assistance whenever necessary.

Delegates are currently monitoring the ongoing military operations to ensure that the humanitarian rules and principles of warfare are being respected by all parties. Whenever violations occur, ad hoc confidential interventions are made to the relevant authorities or command posts.

 Civilians once again on the move  

Prior to the offensive and once hostilities had resumed, an estimated 20,000-30,00 0 civilians abandoned their homes, thereby increasing the large population of internally displaced people in the region. Over the last two years 40 per cent of the population in the Vanni, roughly 300,000 people, have been displaced. In recent months, a large proportion of them have been living in difficult conditions owing to the ongoing military operations and the restrictions imposed on the region. Since the beginning of the offensive, government food convoys to the Vanni have ceased and discussions are currently under way between government agents and the authorities on how to resume the convoys. 

 The ICRC's response  

From the ICRC's sub-delegation in Mallavi and a local office in Puttukhudiyiruppu, seven expatriates and 33 locally recruited staff have been working in the Vanni region. In preparation for possible emergencies, the ICRC built up a stock of non-food relief items to attend to the immediate needs of some 10,000 people. On 17 May delegates distributed plastic sheeting, cooking material and hygiene items to 400 newly displaced families in the Omanthai, Pulyankulam and Puttukhudiyiruppu areas. By 26 May the number of displaced receiving ICRC assistance had increased to 2,500 families.

Through its direct support to six mobile health teams run by the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, the delegation has provided basic medical assistance to the resident and displaced population and transferred patients to local hospitals when necessary. If the existing facilities cannot cope with future developments, the ICRC is prepared to extend its scope to include medical evacuations south of the front lines.

On 17 May emergency medical supplies were distributed to the hospitals of Mallavi, Akkarayan and Mullaittivu. In addition, the ICRC supplied 50 beds and 100 mattresses to the Vavuniya hospital. A six-month supply of basic drugs wei ghing approximately one tonne plus 50 standard dressing sets left yesterday for Vavuniya and should cross the front line today.

The ICRC is conducting a water and sanitation programme throughout the Vanni with the aim of providing clean and safe water to the region's inhabitants. The ongoing projects will be adapted to possible new needs in order to avoid the spread of disease among large concentrations of newly displaced people. To date, 35 water and sanitation projects have been completed.

The ICRC has reinforced its office in Vavuniya by transferring some staff from Anuradhapura. A team of four delegates now provides relief assistance, tracing services and medical support for the displaced Tamil population living in areas bordering the road which has recently fallen under government control. Similar assistance was provided to some of the Singhalese also affected by the conflict. Some 600 families have benefited from the ICRC's programmes.

ICRC visits to people detained in relation to the conflict continue in government-controlled areas. The next round of visits to detainees held by the LTTE and incarcerated in the Vanni region will take place when the security situation allows.