‘Unimaginable Humanitarian Catastrophe’ Unfolding in Sri Lanka

A UN envoy has said the fighting in Sri Lanka, which has continually targetted unarmed civilians and civilian infrastructure and has left an estimated 190,000 without shelter, food, water or adequate medical care, could become “an unthinkable humanitarian catastrophe“, according to the Red Cross. A UN spokesman in Colombo has warned there could be a “bloodbath” as government forces escalate the intensity of their fight to seize the last remaining territory held by the rebels.

The UN spokesman said the slaughter of further numbers of ethnic Tamil Sri Lankan civilians “seems inevitable” as he charges the government appears to have “no end except the end-game”: the UN has warned the Sri Lankan government against indiscriminate military action in civilian areas, and today there have been calls for an independent investigation, including possible charges of war crimes and/or crimes against humanity for the still unconfirmed but reportedly high number of civilian dead.

Between the government’s language of outright hostility toward any notion of ceasing fire to allow civilians to escape to safer ground, the intensity of the fighting, and the pledge to “eliminate” the LTTE once and for all, critics allege there is a kind of “final solution” mentality taking hold in the government’s military strategy, by the logic of which the assassination of journalists, the encampment and even direct bombardment of civilians, and the use of illegal cluster munitions are all considered to be legitimate parts of the struggle against the LTTE rebels.

A senior UN official, Vijay Nambiar, chief of staff to Sec. Gen. Ban Ki-moon, has arrived in Sri Lanka to meet with the government and pressure officials to cease firing on areas where civilian casualties are likely. Ban himself is reported to be considering a trip to the troubled nation, at the invitation of Pres. Mahinda Rajapaka.

Seeking to exert pressure on the Sri Lankan government, US Sec. of State Hillary Clinton has said the time is not right for the International Monetary Fund to evaluate a loan request from the government for $1.9 billion. She has reportedly intimated that the US would seek to block the loan from going forward as long as the Sri Lankan military continues to operate in a way that puts civilians at risk.

Pres. Barack Obama spoke Wednesday of his grave concern for the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, where some 190,000 displaced people are now at risk for disease, hunger, or the ongoing violence between government forces and the Tamil Tiger (LTTE) rebels. Obama called on the LTTE to lay down its arms and allow civilians to flee, and he called on the government to allow civilians to find genuine security from military action and to cease all bombardment of civilian areas.

He also warned that without immediate intervention, the situation in the Tamil region of Sri Lanka threatened to become a humanitarian “catastrophe”, in line with mounting concerns emerging from the UN secretary general’s office, the top of the international diplomatic community.

On Wednesday, a hospital was shelled for the second time, reportedly killing 50 civilians. Reports demonstrating the government’s launching heavy artillery munitions into civilian “safe zones” have been broadcast worldwide by the BBC and others, and accusations of using weapons banned by international law, such as cluster munitions and/or the incendiary chemical fluid white phosphorous, have emerged from the war zone.

The government in Colombo has said it will not heed demands from the UN, the US or the international community broadly, to cease its operations to provide civilians enough time to escape danger, saying it would allow the Tigers time to regroup. That puts the government at odds with the UN Security Council and possibly in a position to face criminal charges, while aid groups worry that civilians are being treated as hostiles, possibly by both sides, simply for being trapped in the war-zone.

With such large numbers of people displaced and lacking basic nourishment or infrastructure, the potential for an epidemic outbreak, of cholera, for instance, is severe. International health workers have warned that failure to reach the displaced civilians with adequate supplies and care could lead to a public health emergency in Sri Lanka.

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