As they escaped the last remaining stronghold of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), Sri Lankan refugees have described the conditions they have endured. (photo, from aljazeera.net)
At a reception centre in Pulmudai, just south of the narrow strip of land held by the LTTE, refugees talked to David Chater, Al Jazeera’s correspondent. Some of them said that they had been held on a beach and shot as they tried to flee.
“A lot of them are in a very distressed state. They are suffering from heat exhaustion, dehydration and all sorts of illnesses”, Mr Chater reported on Wednesday.
“Diabetics have not had proper treatment for four months. These really are grim conditions.”
“I’ve been talking to the Tamils about the conditions they have been in – they described them as ‘hellish’.”
According to the country’s government, its forces have closed in on fighters from the LTTE and two lower level leaders, a former media spokesman and an interpreter, have surrendered.
The war zone, that goes on for about 21 sq km, has been split into two sections by the army, Mr Chater said.
On Wednesday, a Tamil website reported that the Sri Lankan military fired cannons towards a costal area where the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was preparing to take injured civilians away from the conflict zone.
The LTTE said they will not surrender. By saying that they defied a government ultimatum that expired at noon (06:30 GMT) on Tuesday to give up or face a “final assault”.
Tens of thousands of civilians were forced by the warning to escape the northeastern conflict zone.
“In the last three days 81 000 [people] have escaped”, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka’s minister for disaster management and human rights, told Al Jazeera”
“They are being received by the army, initially checked for weapons and after that they are handed over to the government agency who looks after them in the various camps”, he said.
But, humanitarian organisations have conveyed fears for civilians both inside the war zone and those who have fled the area.About 50,000 people are still stranded in the tiny strip of land in the island’s northeast, said the ICRC on Tuesday, adding that a final offensive “could lead to a dramatic increase in the number of civilian casualties”.
Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the ICRC operations director in Sri Lanka, said that “the situation is nothing short of catastrophic”.
“Ongoing fighting has killed or wounded hundreds of civilians who have only minimal access to medical care. “I cannot remember … as much concentrated pain and exposure to violence with very, very minimal possibilities to reach anywhere that could be called safe.”
Dr Ghana Gunalan, director of health services, at Trincomalee on the northeast coast, told Al Jazeera: “Most of these [refugees] have been transported under ICRC flags to Trincomalee. Most people have blast injuries, including to their limbs and abdomens.
“[These injuries] must have been caused by flying objects that have exploded in front of them.”
The government is trying to help those taken into camps, said Mr Samarasinghe.
“Admittedly, it is not five-star accommodation, but we are trying very hard. There are areas for improvement and we are working on them very consciously”, he said.
Calls for negotiations
The UK and France have said that they will try to launch relief operations to civilians fleeing the fighting.
More than 4 500 civilians have been killed in the past three months, estimates the United Nations, which has been one of a number of voices calling for a negotiated truce in order to allow civilians to leave the rebel-held coastal strip.On Monday, reports had surfaced of about 1 000 civilians being killed in the war zone because of the fighting. The Sri Lankan government denied the deaths and said that 17 civilians had died due to LTTE shelling and three suicide bombings.
Independent journalists have been barred from entering the war zone by the government.
For 26 years, the LTTE have been fighting for a separate homeland in the northeast for the island nation’s Tamil minority.