WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Wednesday urged both sides in Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war to take measures to avert a humanitarian crisis and aid tens of thousands of people trapped in the war zone.
The U.N. Security Council held its first formal session on Sri Lanka and voiced grave concern over civilian deaths in the conflict, Asia’s longest modern war, and ordered the army and rebels to protect civilians.
“Without urgent action this humanitarian crisis could turn into a catastrophe,” Obama said at the White House as fighting intensified in the conflict.
“Now is the time to put aside some of the political issues that are involved and to put the lives of the men, women and children who are innocently caught in the cross fire, to put them first,” he said.
Shelling killed a Red Cross worker inside Sri Lanka’s war zone on Wednesday, and hundreds of civilians were reported killed on Sunday and Monday in artillery barrages as troops attacked a narrow strip of land controlled by the Tigers, who want a separate state for minority Tamils.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, rebels are cornered in a coastal strip with tens of thousands of civilians, who U.N. officials say have become human shields.
The rebels accused the military for the third day of shelling a no-fire zone. Sri Lanka’s government has denied using heavy artillery against the strip where the Tigers are trapped.
“I urge the Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms and let civilians go,” Obama said. “Their forced recruitment of civilians and their use of civilians as human shields is deplorable.”
He also called for an end to indiscriminate shelling by government troops and said they should allow humanitarian access to the zone.
In New York, diplomats at the United Nations said on Wednesday that heavy civilian deaths reported over the weekend were one of the factors that helped to convince the 15-member Security Council to meet on Sri Lanka.
“The members of the Security Council express grave concern over the worsening humanitarian crisis in northeast Sri Lanka, in particular the reports of hundreds of civilian casualties in recent days,” their unanimously agreed statement said.
The Security Council statement said the council members “strongly condemn the LTTE for its acts of terrorism over many years” and urged the group to “lay down its arms and allow the tens of the thousands of civilians to leave.”
The pro-rebel Web site www.TamilNet.com, and a government-employed doctor in the war zone whose personal security is at the whim of the Tigers, said on Wednesday at least 38 people were killed in an attack on a makeshift medical clinic. The military called the report fabricated.
Some 6,500 civilians have been killed in the three months since January, according to U.N. estimates, but there is no way of independently confirming the data.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, for days unable to ferry out wounded and deliver aid by boat because of fighting, said a 31-year-old local staff member and his mother were killed by a shell.
Analysts and diplomats said the end of voting in India’s month-long election on Wednesday was likely to usher in an all-out attack by Sri Lanka to wipe out the Tigers and bring a conventional end to a the war.
Sri Lanka’s war has become a delicate election issue for India’s ruling Congress party in the swing state of Tamil Nadu, home to 60 million Tamils across the Palk Strait where the LTTE was incubated and still commands support.
In Paris, two Tamils on hunger strike were taken to a hospital on Wednesday after some 400 people blocked traffic to protest the killing of civilians, police said.
The men had been on hunger strike for more than a month, lying in a tent in central Paris surrounded by round-the-clock rallies and speeches by expatriate Tamil protesters.
Reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York, C. Bryson Hull and Shihar Aneez in Colombo; Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal and Paris newsroom; Writing by Cynthia Osterman; Editing by Peter Cooney