UNHCR helps thousands fleeing fighting in north-east Sri Lanka
GENEVA, August 8 (UNHCR) - UNHCR, with the help of local aid agencies, has been assisting thousands of people fleeing the latest outbreak of fighting between government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in north-east Sri Lanka.
An estimated 21,000 people have been displaced from the town of Muttur, which lies across Koddiyar Bay from the port city of Trincomalee.
Many are taking shelter in schools and mosques, while others are staying with host families in Kantale, Thankmaplagama, Kinniya and Trincomalee. UNHCR staff say Kantale cannot physically accept any more of the displaced and they add that sporadic fighting is continuing around Muttur.
Working through local non-governmental organizations, the UN refugee agency has since Saturday distributed 1,800 plastic sheets, 2,000 jerry cans and 2,000 mats to the displaced. UNHCR's Trincomalee office plans to distribute a further 1,500 plastic sheets and set up common cooking spaces. Extra mats, jerry cans, kitchen sets and hygiene parcels will be sent in the coming days.
"We are also shipping cooking equipment for the communal kitchens," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told journalists in Geneva on Tuesday. Following a request from the local health authorities, the agency had bought items such as underwear in Trincomalee for distribution to the most vulnerable displaced.
But many people in need of aid cannot yet be reached. "We do not have access to Muttur, where 4,000 people are said to be trapped, or to Eachchilampattai, where some 11,000 people are said to be in dire need of humanitarian help," Pagonis said.
In a related development, UNHCR on Tuesday joined other UN agencies and NGOs working in Sri Lanka in strongly condemning the execution-style killings of 15 workers from the French aid agency Action Contre la Faim. The dead were working on rehabilitation projects following the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.
"The killings stand as a dark page in the history of humanitarian work in Sri Lanka," Pagonis said in Geneva. "We also remind both the Sri Lankan government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam of their duty and responsibility to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons," she added.
Before the latest outbreak of fighting, more than 312,000 people had been displaced within Sri Lanka since 1983, some 67,000 of whom are being assisted by UNHCR in welfare centres throughout the country.
Since the unravelling of the 2002 ceasefire in April this year, and before this weekend's displacement, a further 50,000 people had fled their homes to find refuge elsewhere in the country. The number who have fled the country to southern India's Tamil Nadu region since January has now reached 6,206, including 548 in the past eight days.
UNHCR has been operating in Sri Lanka since 1987, providing protection and assistance to people displaced by conflict.