COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka must put in practice its latest pledge not to use heavy weapons as it fights the Tamil Tiger rebels, with more than 50,000 people in “mortal danger” in the war zone, the U.N. aid chief said on Monday.
Amid mounting diplomatic pressure to protect civilians caught in what many expect to be the final battle in Sri Lanka’s 25-year conflict, the government said on Monday it would no longer use heavy weapons as it moves in to rescue those still trapped.
“I hope that the idea of not using heavy weapons will genuinely be respected, which I am afraid has not been the case in the past,” U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told reporters.
“It’s absolutely important that what the government has said is now respected.”
On his second trip to the Indian Ocean island in as many months, Holmes met President Mahinda Rajapaksa after touring refugee camps near Sri Lanka’s northern war zone as part of his two-day emergency visit.
Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) accuse each other of targeting people packed into a coastal strip of less than 10 square km (3.8 sq miles).
“We need to see what that does mean on the ground. I hope it means the intensity of fighting will be very much reduced,” Holmes told reporters.
The United Nations estimates “50,000 plus” people are still there, and possibly more, Holmes said. The government estimates no more than 20,000 are left, after an exodus of 113,000 which started a week ago.
“Our figures were more accurate than the government’s,” he said, referring to Colombo’s mid-February estimate of no more than 70,000. “However many there are, these people are in mortal danger.”
He said thousands of civilians had been killed, but declined to confirm an internal U.N. tally showing nearly 6,500 civilian deaths since the end of January, saying there was not enough detailed information to make that an official U.N. figure.
Talks with the LTTE had borne no fruit, Holmes said.
“In the contact I had, there was no give in terms of letting civilians go or laying down their weapons,” Holmes said.
The LTTE insist people are staying with them by choice, despite numerous witness accounts saying they are shooting people who try to flee and forcibly recruiting others to fight.
Holmes said there still was no agreement on permitting a U.N. humanitarian team into the war zone as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for last week, nor on the release of U.N. local staff from refugee camps.
The United Nations pledged $10 million on top of $10 million already given to help deal with the refugee exodus, he said.
Holmes said facilities were overwhelmed in the first few days but joint efforts of the government and aid agencies have improved conditions.
Existing refugee camps are up to standards, but the government must allow greater freedom of movement, rapid resettlement of people and work to reunify families, Holmes said.
Editing by Jerry Norton