UNHCR concerned about civilians caught in Sri Lanka fighting
GENEVA, August 4 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Friday said it was concerned about the safety of civilians caught in the middle of escalated fighting between Sri Lankan government troops and fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told reporters in Geneva that UNHCR was particularly worried about the situation in north-eastern Sri Lanka's Trincomalee district, where fighting has caused displacement, injury and loss of life and property amongst all ethnic communities.
"There are reports that thousand of civilians are trying to flee the town of Muttur," Pagonis said, adding: "UNHCR is particularly concerned by reports of deliberate displacement of particular communities."
On Thursday, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had called on the rival parties to cease hostilities immediately and allow humanitarian agencies free access to the civilian populations. Pagonis, echoing this sentiment, said: "We underline how important it is for us to have access to displaced people and for them to have freedom of movement."
She stressed that the government and the LTTE had the primary duty and responsibility to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to internally displaced people (IDPs). This included protection from displacement, protection during displacement and protection during return, resettlement and reintegration.
High Commissioner António Guterres visited Sri Lanka - including Trincomalee district - late last month. During the trip, he urged both sides to support confidence-building measures to prevent the displacement of people in the first place and to allow them to return home if they chose.
Since a 2002 ceasefire began to fray in April this year, some 50,000 more people have fled their homes. UNHCR is monitoring the displacement and providing protection and humanitarian assistance to the newly displaced.
The number who have fled the country to southern India's Tamil Nadu region since January has now reached 5,809.
UNHCR is mandated to provide protection and assistance to IDPs in Sri Lanka and has been working with conflict-displaced people in the country since 1987. More than 312,000 people have been displaced since war first erupted between the government and the LTTE in 1983. The UN refugee agency assists about 67,000 displaced people in welfare centres throughout the country.