Trapped civilians in Sri Lanka are facing starvation

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The Independent Online

Tens of thousands of civilians trapped in Sri Lanka's northern war zone are facing starvation, the Tamil Tiger rebels warned yesterday. The UN sent its top humanitarian official to assess the crisis.

Reports of chaos in the northern war zone have increased in recent days as the Sri Lankan military pushed forward with its offensive to destroy the rebel group and end the quarter-century civil war. More than 100,000 civilians have fled the tiny coastal strip still under rebel control since Monday, flooding hospitals in the north and overwhelming displacement camps. Another 50,000 civilians remain trapped in a war zone which has claimed 6,500 civilian lives in the past three months.

The Tamil Tigers, who say the number of trapped civilians is three times that estimate, said in a statement yesterday that food stocks in the region had dwindled, making starvation "imminent". Dr Thangamuttu Sathyamurthi, a top government health official in the war zone, said there was a severe shortage of food and medicine and people were dying from starvation. The rebels called on the UN and the international community to ensure that food supplies are swiftly sent to the area.

The government has barred aid groups and journalists from the war zone since last year, arguing that it was too dangerous for them to work. With the crisis growing, the UN sent its top humanitarian official, John Holmes, to Sri Lanka on Friday. A UN spokeswoman said the situation "continues to be critical, civilian casualties have been tragically high and their suffering horrendous".

International pressure on Sri Lanka has grown in recent days, with India sending officials to demand a pause in the fighting to allow civilians to escape. The UN Security Council also demanded Sri Lanka's co-operation with efforts to visit the war zone and called for access for the Red Cross. Sri Lankan officials have brushed off calls for a ceasefire.

Thousands continue to flee the war zone. The military said yesterday that a further 2,600 civilians escaped the area by land and boat on Friday, bringing the number who fled since Monday to nearly 110,000. Médecins sans Frontières surgeon Paul McMaster said the hospital he was working at in the northern town of Vavuniya was overwhelmed by injured civilians. "We have done 71 major operations over the past 24 hours," he said. "It has been bedlam in the hospital." One ward with 45 beds is packed with 320 patients and many are dying because of a severe nursing shortage. "There are simply too many people to treat them all. We are not able to save some people because we need to provide more aftercare," he said.

Among his patients is a girl of seven, one of three sisters with severe injuries. Their mother was killed in the fighting and their father has a 50 per cent chance of survival.