U.N. Envoy Arrives in Sri Lanka

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By Mark McDonald and Sharon Otterman
Friday, May 15th, 2009
Gota and Nambiar

Vijay Nambiar and Gotabhaya Rajapakse

HONG KONG — A senior United Nations envoy arrived in Sri Lanka on Friday for possible cease-fire talks with the government as tens of thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians remained in peril in what the Red Cross said was “an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe.”

The director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Pierre Krahenbuhl, said relief workers had been unable in recent days to use boats and ferries to help civilians escape fierce fighting between government troops and Tamil Tiger separatists. Seaborne deliveries of emergency food aid also were blocked.

Sri Lankan soldiers continued to tighten the noose around a few hundred rebels who are surrounded on a patch of boggy beachfront about two square miles in size. Most civilians trapped in the combat zone have literally gone to ground, seeking protection in hand-dug bunkers and under ruined buildings.

The chief of staff to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Vijay Nambiar, was due to meet with senior officials in Colombo on Friday. A United Nations spokeswoman also said Mr. Ban is considering a trip to Sri Lanka, at the invitation of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The government has consistently rejected calls for a humanitarian cease-fire, despite appeals from the United Nations, human rights groups, the United States and other Western nations. International pressure has increased in recent weeks as thousands of civilians have been killed by shelling of the war zone.

Washington appeared to increase that pressure on Thursday when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters that it is “not an appropriate time" for theInternational Monetary Fund to consider a $1.9 billion loan request by Sri Lanka.

She suggested the United States would effectively block the loan “until there is a resolution of the conflict.”

At least 3,000 civilians who had been trapped in the war zone managed to flee Thursday, the country’s military said. More than 1,000 civilians waded across a shallow lagoon under rebel fire, the military said in a statement, and hundreds more fled across land to the north.

The U.N. acting representative for Sri Lanka, Amin Awad, said 6,000 civilians had fled Thursday or were trying to flee, but that rebel fire was preventing them, Reuters reported.

Verification of reports from the military, the U.N., aid groups or the rebels have not been possible due to the government’s ban on independent journalists from the battle area and refugee camps.

A spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, Sulakshani Perera, said that a total of 196,000 people had so far fled the conflict zone. Some human rights groups say the rebels are using civilians in the conflict zone as human shields, and that heavy artillery shelling from government forces was being conducted without sufficient regard for civilian safety.

The government has denied using mortars, artillery and heavy weapons, but satellite images taken May 10 and analyzed independently have found what appear to be new heavy impact craters in the war zone.

The rebels blame the government’s offensive for the civilian casualties. A Web site used by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or L.T.T.E., said Thursday an estimated 1,700 civilians had been killed in the conflict zone since Tuesday. About 1,400 patients were left without care at the zone’s last remaining hospital, a report on the Web site said, as doctors and staff abandoned it and fled into bunkers for safety.

Mark McDonald reported from Hong Kong, and Sharon Otterman from New York.

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© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company