|Last U.N. staff safely leave Sri Lanka war zone|
|Tuesday, 16 September 2008|
by: C. Bryson Hull
COLOMBO (Reuters) - The United Nations' last team inside Sri Lanka's war zone safely reached army-held territory on Tuesday after the government told aid workers to leave the north in what the president called a temporary safety measure.A convoy of 10 aid workers reached the Omanthai checkpoint, 265 km (165 miles) north of the capital Colombo, after driving along a road that has been hit by intensified fighting between the army and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels."They are safe," U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss said in Colombo.President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government ordered all aid agencies out of the northern war zone on September 9 as the military intensified an offensive towards the LTTE's headquarters town of Kilinochchi, where the U.N. team was based.
Military officials said on Tuesday they were within 5.5 km (3 miles) of Kilinochchi, a symbolic army target and a main base for the Tigers, who have fought a war since 1983 to create a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's ethnic minority Tamil people.Residents there had blockaded the U.N. office since the team first tried to leave at the weekend as shells fell closer to the town, Weiss said."We hope that (our departure) is temporary so that we can reach people.
What we do know is that it is too dangerous for us to operate at the moment and our operations are being asphyxiated by the conflict," Weiss said from Colombo.Fighting has flared in the past three months along a jagged frontline which stretches from coast to coast across the island nation's north, sparking what aid groups say is the displacement of between 70,000-85,000 people.Aid groups privately say they fear the government cannot take care of the estimated 160,000 who have fled their homes since a shaky truce began collapsing in mid-2006.
The government formally threw it out in January and unleashed an attack on four fronts.On Tuesday, the military said it had killed 17 rebels and wounded 29 the day before. It said 14 soldiers were wounded.
"FOCUSING ON WAR"
In a rare meeting with foreign journalists late on Monday, Rajapaksa said the ban was for aid groups' safety while the military tried to end one of Asia's longest-running insurgencies."It's a short-term measure. Very soon they can go back," Rajapaksa told reporters, declining to set a timeframe.Rajapaksa said it was not a precursor to more combat operations, but said his resolve to wipe out the Tamil Tigers -- on U.S., E.U. and Indian terrorism lists -- had not wavered."We are focusing on war," Rajapaksa said. He scoffed when asked if he was worried that the LTTE would retreat into the jungle and carry out a protracted guerrilla war."We can crush them. Why can't we? They are in the jungle at the moment, and our forces are in the jungle at the moment.
"Underscoring the threat of guerrilla attacks in Colombo, a lunchtime blast on a bus slightly wounded four people on Tuesday."The bus conductor observed a suspicious parcel in a rear seat and acted immediately to evacuate the passengers. It exploded soon after," said military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara. "This is a desperate LTTE act."The LTTE could not immediately be reached for comment.The government has vowed to wipe out the Tigers and analysts say the war may be near a turning point with the military's rapid progress in seizing rebel outposts over the past three months.
(Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez; Editing by Paul Tait)
(Courtesy : Swiss Info )
|Last Updated ( Monday, 09 March 2009 )|
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