Several thousand reported fleeing coastal strip in eastern Sri Lanka
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, January 19 (UNHCR) - Thousands of civilians on Friday morning began fleeing renewed conflict in eastern Sri Lanka's Vaharai coastal strip and moving towards government-controlled areas.
Those on the run were among an estimated 9,500 civilians remaining in the Vaharai area, which has seen heavy fighting between government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in recent months.
UNHCR staff in the district capital of Batticaloa said they had received reports that the government troops were advancing on rebel positions. They added that the civilians were moving towards Batticaloa, which lies 60 kilometres south of Vaharai.
There were also unconfirmed reports of some people moving north and UNHCR teams were out in the field trying to verify the numbers fleeing and their exact location, and to start arranging assistance.
"We are concerned about the safety of civilians, not just those in Vaharai, but people in conflict areas across the north and east. We reiterate our call to the parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians and their freedom of movement," said Axel Bisschop, the acting UNHCR Representative in Sri Lanka.
Access to Vaharai has been limited since October, with only one convoy able to deliver relief aid in late November. Thousands of people had fled earlier outbreaks of fighting in the Vaharai area - many of them had sought refuge in the coastal strip after fleeing fighting further to the north in mid-2006.
In late December, more than 20,000 civilians previously trapped by the fighting managed to cross swollen rivers and navigate jungle paths to reach government lines in Batticaloa district.
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 reopen in a matter of weeks. Late last month, the refugee agency distributed basic household items to more than 5,000 families from Vaharai. UNHCR has stocks to help the latest arrivals.
In a related development, UNHCR has appealed for US$15.8 million to fund its assistance programmes this year for the growing numbers of internally displaced people in Sri Lanka.
The refugee agency is asking for the money as part of a larger Common Humanitarian Action Plan, under which United Nations agencies in the country are seeking US$66 million for priority activities during the next six to 12 months.
UNHCR estimates some 465,000 people are displaced by conflict in Sri Lanka, including 204,300 people forced to flee by violence since April 2006.
By Clare Graham and Sulakshani Perera in Colombo, Sri Lanka