Two weeks after ordering the UN and other humanitarian agencies out of the Wanni, the Government has now decided to allow UN officials to escort food convoys to LTTE-controlled areas.
UN officials would lead a convoy of some 80 trucks from Thursday, Essential Services Comissioner S.B. Divaratna told The Sunday Times. They would go from Vavuniya to three towns in the Wanni — Mullaitivu, Tharmapuram and Puthukudiyiruppu, he said.
However, the escalation in the fighting is causing some uncertainty over this move as the Air Force intensified its bombing raids on Kilinochchi yesterday while ground troops were poised for a major thrust into Kokavil and Kilinochchi.
Of the 80 trucks in the food convoy, forty belong to the government and the rest sponsored by the World Food Program (WFP) of the UN, Mr. Divaratna said. In New York last week, President Mahinda Rajapaksa met UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly sessions after the UN chief had expressed concern over the fate of the civilians in the Wanni.
Mr. Divaratna said about 1,000 tons of food and other essential items had been listed for the first trip, and this would be followed by another 4,000 tons in the days to come.
Unlike earlier when the A-9 was used for such transport, this time the convoy would take the Mankulam-Oddusuddan route and the goods would be emptied at points in Mullaitivu, Tharmaapuram and Puthukudiyiruppu, Mr. Divaratna said.
“There will be no stops at Kilinochchi since most of the people have fled the area and it is now virtually a ghost town, with perhaps only LTTE members opting to stay back,” he said.
Mr. Divaratna said the loading and the sealing of the trucks would be done in the presence of the security forces at Vavuniya and there would be no further checks at Omanthai, as was the procedure earlier.
UN spokesperson Gordon Weiss said relief workers from the UN would be a part of the convoys that would go into the Wanni on a regular basis from Thursday, in keeping with international obligations during conflict situations.
“Our main purpose in being part of the convoys is to demonstrate to the people caught up in the fighting that the UN has not deserted them in their time of need, though we have wound up ground operations in the conflict areas,” Mr. Weiss said.
He said the convoys would be fully manned by UN personnel, who would be present up to the receiving point in the conflict zone. But he stopped short of saying whether they will also supervise the distribution.
Mr. Weiss said the UN was also aware of the security risks facing the staff, with government forces reportedly poised to launch an all-out offensive against the remaining LTTE bases in Killinochchi and elsewhere.
“If and when the fighting intensifies, we will have to adjust our movements into the area in consultation with all parties engaged in the conflict. However, despite risks, every effort will be made at all times to get the supplies through to the displaced people,” Mr. Weiss said.
Hashim Deen, Executive Director for the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), said several INGO and NGO representatives would accompany the convoys along with UN officials.
He said the presence of the INGO and NGO officials was to demonstrate their concern for the displaced people, but stopped short of saying if they were worried that the goods would fall into wrong hands.
Meanwhile, the Government, relief agencies and aid workers have earmarked six areas to accommodate civilians who are expected to cross the Omanthai point into Vavuniya as fighting intensifies further up in the north.
The selected areas include large open areas where hundreds of makeshift shelters such as tents, etc. could be set up at short notice, Mr. Deen said.