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Sri Lanka: Several thousand reported fleeing

Briefing notes

Sri Lanka: Several thousand reported fleeing

19 January 2007

At six o'clock this morning local time, several thousand of an estimated 9,500 people remaining in Vaharai, a pocket of rebel-held land on Sri Lanka's east coast, started to move south towards government-controlled areas of Batticaloa District, according to reports received by our field office in Batticaloa, 60 km south of Vaharai.

They are reportedly fleeing intensified fighting as government forces advance on rebel positions. The area has seen months of heavy fighting. Humanitarian access to the Vaharai area has been limited since October, with only one humanitarian convoy able to deliver relief aid in late November. Our staff are out in the field trying to verify the numbers fleeing and their exact location, and to start arranging assistance.

UNHCR is very concerned about the safety of any civilians remaining in Vaharai, as well as those in other areas across Sri Lanka's conflict-riddled north and east. We call on both parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians and their freedom of movement.

This is the second large-scale movement out of Vaharai in a month. In late December, over 20,000 civilians previously trapped by fighting between Sri Lankan forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) managed to cross swollen rivers and jungle paths into government-controlled areas of Batticaloa District to the south of Vaharai.

Since then, UNHCR and its partners have been working with local authorities to set up emergency sites to host the new arrivals, allowing schools which were initially sheltering the displaced to re-open in a matter of weeks. In late December, UNHCR distributed basic household items to over 5,000 families from Vaharai. We have more stocks to help the latest arrivals.

Over the last four months, we have distributed over 500,000 basic household items (everything from toothbrushes to mosquito nets to sarongs and saris) to displaced people and host families.

UNHCR estimates some 465,000 people are displaced by conflict in Sri Lanka, including 204,300 people displaced by violence since April 2006.