Sri Lanka: Some 5,000 civilians find refuge in Batticaloa after fleeing coastal strip
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, January 23 (UNHCR) - An estimated 5,000 civilians have found refuge in eastern Sri Lanka's Batticaloa district after fleeing escalated fighting between government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the Vaharai coastal strip.
Yoko Akasaka, the head of the UNHCR field office in Batticaloa town, said the civilians had started fleeing from Vaharai and moving south to Batticaloa early on Friday morning. "By the time they arrived in the government-controlled towns of Mankerny, Singhapura and Ridithenna [in Batticaloa district] they were starving and exhausted," she added.
UNHCR is working with other United Nations agencies and with non-governmental organisations to help the government in the provision of humanitarian assistance to the displaced. Staff from the refugee agency were in Mankerny, Singhapura and Ridithenna to monitor the arriving civilians late Friday and Saturday.
"Despite the large-scale displacement this part of Sri Lanka has seen in recent weeks, we were able to accommodate everyone," said Akasaka.
Most of the newly arrived displaced people were settled in eight sites in Batticaloa district. A number of these sites were already hosting some of the more than 20,000 civilians who managed to break out of the Vaharai area last December and reach government lines.
The government said last week that there were an estimated 9,500 civilians remaining in the area. UNHCR has called on all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians and their freedom of movement.
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.
UNHCR and its partners have been working in recent weeks 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.
UNHCR estimates some 465,000 people are displaced by conflict in Sri Lanka, including 204,300 people forced to flee by violence since April last year.
By Sulakshani Perera in Colombo, Sri Lanka