Civilians’ safety of prime concern

By Leon Berenger, Pic by Saman Kariyawasam

The government is prepared to slow down its military offensive in the remaining pockets of land under LTTE control in the Mullaitivu district, only if it helps to facilitate the safe passage of civilians into areas under the control of the security forces, Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said yesterday.
“Several intermediaries are right now working behind the scenes with all participants in the conflict in an effort to get the civilians out of the conflict zone at the earliest,” Mr. Samarasinghe told journalists at a media conference with the visiting UN Humanitarian Affairs chief, Sir John Holmes.

The Minister was firm on the point that the government was not prepared to talk with the LTTE, directly or otherwise, stressing that the guerrilla organisation was an outlawed group, and that the government’s position would not change. He said the LTTE was deliberately holding back civilians and using them as a human shield as the security forces continued to close in on the cornered LTTE from several fronts.
Mr. Samarasinghe said the troops, out of concern for the safety of civilians, had stopped using long-range weapons and artillery guns on suspected LTTE positions, although the LTTE were taking advantage of the situation.

UN Special Envoy Sir John Holmes and Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe at the media conference.

“The government’s priority at all times is the safety of the non-combatants, and we are ready to make limited sacrifices towards this end,” Mr. Samarasinghe said.

The minister said security forces officers manning the camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Vavuniya had identified some 250 LTTE suspects among those who had crossed into government-controlled areas.

“We are well aware of this,” the minister said. “These are natural security concerns, as the LTTE’s aim at all times is to destabilise the peaceful conditions prevailing in the camps. Thirty-two such persons have been sent for rehabilitation, while a vetting process is under way with the other suspects. It will be some time before these persons are allowed to leave the camps and move with the others. This is being done for everyone’s good.”

Meanwhile, UN Special Envoy Sir John Holmes has called on the LTTE to allow civilians to go where they felt safe and to respect non-combatants while the conflict continued. Sir John, who is on a three-day visit to the country at the government’s invitation, said he was satisfied with the conditions prevailing at the IDP transitional camps in Vavuniya. He has appealed to the government to permit the free movement of civilians so they can visit relatives and start enjoying a normal life as soon as possible.
The envoy also appealed to the government to allow foreign observers at screening points for IDPS set up along the security forces’ defence line.

He said the UN was not pressing for any form of ceasefire at the moment but requested restraint on the part of the combatants in order to spare civilians who were becoming increasingly caught up in the cross-fire.

During his stay, Sir John had a series of discussions about the safety of civilians with top government officials and ministers, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He said the UN has already promised US$10,000 in the first stage of UN assistance to help displaced persons.

Sir John condemned the LTTE air raid on the city on Friday night and extended his sympathies to the victims of the air raid and their families.

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