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By C. Bryson Hull
March 13 (Reuters) — The U.N. high commissioner for human rights on Thursday warned both sides in Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war may have committed war crimes and that the loss of life could be catastrophic if there is no pause in the combat.
Here are some questions and answers about civilians trapped in the war:
HOW MANY ARE TRAPPED?
According to the Red Cross, about 150,000 people, but the government says there are no more than 70,000. Nearly all are in a 12-km (7-mile) long strip of coconut groves on the coast, which also has water on the inland side and is no wider than a half-kilometre. The army has declared the area a no-fire zone. Aid agencies say food and clean water is in short supply but the government is bringing it in by boats sailing under the flag of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
WHY HAVEN’T THEY FLED ALREADY?
Aid agencies, rights groups and witnesses who have escaped say the LTTE is shooting people who try to run, and forcing people including children as young as 15 to fight. The Tigers deny that and say people stay by choice because they fear persecution at army-guarded refugee camps. The U.N.’s top humanitarian official, Sir John Holmes, visited some camps last month and said they met standards, but urged greater freedom of movement for residents. The government says it needs time to separate innocent civilians from Tiger infiltrators.
HOW MANY HAVE ESCAPED THE FIGHTING?
About 38,900 since January 1, the military says. Almost all came out in 10-day period which started when soldiers reached an old no-fire zone at the end of January. Since Friday, more than 1,000 got out amid heavy fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the army.
HOW MANY HAVE BEEN KILLED OR WOUNDED?
No one knows for sure. The ICRC, the only aid agency with a permanent presence in the war zone, has said hundreds have been killed and injured since January. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who is an ethnic Tamil raised in South Africa, on Friday said a range of credible sources said more than 2,800 civilians had been killed and more than 7,000 injured. She did not name the sources, and the government in the past has criticised U.N. reports of civilian deaths as inflated. The pro-LTTE web site www.TamilNet.com has given similar numbers. The government says the LTTE inflates numbers to create sympathy and passes off fighters as civilians. The government has acknowledged some civilians may have been killed, but not on a mass scale.
WHAT RISKS DO CIVILIANS FACE?
Besides the threat of getting caught in the crossfire in a war zone now no more than 37 square km (15 square miles), northern Sri Lanka is awash in land mines and booby traps. The Tigers also have been accused of firing from heavily populated areas, and the military of returning fire. Both deny that.
WHAT IS BEING DONE ABOUT THEM?
Diplomats are working furiously to get the Tigers to let people go free, and for the government to have a brief pause in fighting to let that happen. The Tigers have so far rebuffed all entreaties. The government says it will set up two routes out of the no-fire zone and guarantee safe passage. Diplomats point out that will also require the Tigers to agree or else civilians could get hurt. (Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)