Sri Lanka’s Dirty War

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The international community should withhold financial aid to Sri Lanka until all civilians are evacuated from the war zone and aid workers have full access to refugee camps.
Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Army troops in Sri Lanka are closing in on a dwindling band of Tamil Tiger separatists who are outgunned on an ever-narrowing battlefield. It would be a relief if this 25-year fight finally ends. In the meantime, tens of thousands of terrified civilians are trapped in the conflict zone — a strip of land about four miles long — and are running out of food and water. They must be allowed to leave.

Human rights groups have accused both the minority Tamils, who pioneered suicide bombing as a weapon of war and are widely classified as terrorists, and Sri Lanka’s government of gross violations. After several failed attempts at peace talks, the army began this latest offensive. In recent months, as authorities sensed potential victory, the attacks have gotten ever more fierce. The United Nations estimates that more than 6,000 people have been killed and nearly 14,000 wounded just since the end of January.

While there are no good guys in this fight, the government must do all that it can to avoid harming civilians in a war zone. You know officials have something to hide when they bar aid groups and journalists from the war zone, as Sri Lanka has done since last year.

Sri Lanka has callously ignored calls for a humanitarian cease-fire. This week the government said the army would stop using heavy weapons against the rebels, but watchdog groups say that they have received reports that fierce shelling continues.

American officials say privately that they will try to delay Sri Lanka from getting a desperately needed $1.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund until all civilians are allowed to leave the war zone and aid workers have full access to refugee camps. Other countries should join that effort. The European Union is warning that unless Sri Lanka quickly declares a cease-fire, it will have to rethink its aid and trade. Japan and India should use their even greater economic leverage.

Sri Lanka’s leaders and the rebels must be warned that they could face prosecution for war crimes. Once this fighting ends, the government and the Tamils must be persuaded to pursue a serious political settlement, or this long and brutal war would certainly reignite.

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© 2009 The New York Times Company
A version of this article appeared in print on April 30, 2009, on page A26 of the New York edition.