COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s government ordered aid workers out of the country’s northern war zone on Monday, saying it could not guarantee their safety as it advances into territory held by separatist Tamil Tiger rebels.
Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa informed a committee of humanitarian aid leaders on Monday afternoon.
“Given the situation there, we are not in a position to guarantee their security so they should relocate, not withdraw,” Minister of Human Rights and Disaster Management Mahinda Samarasinghe told Reuters.
There was no immediate reaction from the humanitarian community over the order, which takes immediate effect and also affects local partners of international aid groups.
More than 100,000 people have fled their homes in the last two years of fighting. Aid groups are bracing for a similar flood from the latest battles.
The government said it was trying to avoid a repeat of the August 2006 massacre of 17 local aid workers employed by the French aid agency Action Against Hunger.
Nordic truce monitors in 2006 blamed the security forces but Sri Lanka’s government said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were responsible.
The order comes as the military is pushing through the jungle on several fronts to surround the LTTE’s headquarters at Kilinochchi, in the north of the Indian Ocean island nation.
The advance, which has seen the military seize rebel strongholds over the past three weeks, rolled forward as ground troops battled near the northwestern port of Nachchikudda.
“Air force jets conducted three raids on three LTTE gatherings in support of 58 division north of Nachchikkuda,” said Air Force spokesman Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara.
Nanayakkara said the air force also bombed rebel positions on Saturday and Sunday but gave no details of casualties.
The fighting is taking place along a frontline that curves south along roughly 100 km (64 miles) of mostly thick jungle, from Nachchikkuda to just south of the rebel-held Mullaittivu port on the eastern shore.
The military said they had killed 52 rebels and wounded 40 during weekend fighting. Three soldiers also died and 26 were wounded in the same battles.
The rebels were not immediately available to comment on the battlefield casualties but said in an e-mailed statement a military mine had killed one civilian. The military dismissed the claim.
Both sides regularly accuse the other of disregard for civilian casualties. Rights groups say both have been responsible for murders and abductions in the 25-year-old war.
Also on Monday, unknown gunmen shot and seriously wounded a journalist in the eastern town of Batticaloa, where the government has taken control since pushing the rebels out last year.
Police said newspaper reporter Devakumar Radhika, 35, was shot by an unknown gunman. She had previously worked as a spokesperson for the TMVP, a breakaway LTTE faction that has since sided with the government in the east, police said.
The LTTE, which is on U.S., U.N. and EU terrorism lists, has been fighting since 1983 to establish a separate nation for the island’s ethnic minority Tamil people in a conflict that has killed 70,000 people since 1983.
Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Caroline Drees