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Posted on on January 29th, 2009
by Pincas Jawetz (


India Speaks Up For Embattled Tamils.
Indranil Banerjie

NEW DELHI, Jan 28 (IPS) – As humanitarian agencies warned of a major crisis unfolding in Sri Lanka, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee made a quick dash Colombo to extract promises concerning the safety of some 250,000 ethnic Tamils trapped in fighting between separatist rebels and government troops. Mukherjee, who flew into Colombo on Tuesday afternoon, returned on Wednesday morning after a crucial meeting with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse.

“The Sri Lankan government has reassured that they would respect the safe zones and minimize the effects of conflict on Tamil civilians,” the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka said in a statement released after the meeting.

“I stressed that military victories offer a political opportunity to restore life to normalcy in the northern province and throughout Sri Lanka,” the high commission statement quoted Mukherjee as saying. “We will work together with the government of Sri Lanka to enable all Sri Lankans, and particularly the Tamil community who have borne the brunt of the effects of the conflict, to lead normal lives as soon as possible.” Speaking to reporters before his departure for Colombo, Mukherjee said India was ”against all sorts of terrorism” and had ”no sympathy for any terrorist activity indulged in by any organisation, particularly LTTE, a banned organisation in India”. He, however, added: ”We shall have to see how civilians can be protected and they do not become hapless victims of the situation.”

“Although India might have reservations about intervening in Sri Lanka, the government is under tremendous pressure from its political allies to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka”, said Praful Bakshi, a retired air force officer who now consults with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

That pressure comes from the Indian government’s coalition ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party, which currently rules the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This state is home to more than 60 million Tamils, many of whom sympathise with their ethnic counterparts in Sri Lanka.

“There is unhappiness and anger here in Tamil Nadu,” Chennai based security expert, B. Raman, told IPS over telephone. “The Sri Lankan government, after the visit of Indian Foreign Secretary [Shiv Shankar Menon] to Colombo earlier this month, made it appear that the Indian government fully approved the Sri Lankan government’s actions. This led to a lot of angry comments in Tamil Nadu.”

The Indian foreign minister needed to go to Colombo to clear misgivings about glossing over a Tamil humanitarian issue, experts in New Delhi felt.

After seizing Mullaitivu, the last town controlled by the rebel LTTE, the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) is reported to have holed up the remnants of the rebels in small patches of jungle. But some 230,000 Tamil civilians retreated along with the rebels into the jungles of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi Districts. These areas are being continuously shelled by the SLA.

“When the Sri Lankan Army went into Mullaitivu, the town was empty,” said Raman. “There were no reports of arms recovery or the capture of any LTTE soldiers in that town. The entire LTTE apparatus along with more than 200,000 civilians had simply moved into the jungle.”

“The Sri Lankan government claims that these civilians are being held hostage by the LTTE for use as human shields, while the LTTE website has been saying that the civilians fled because 300 of them died in army artillery fire”, Raman said.

India’s concerns on the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka are shared by the world community.

EU Commissioner for external relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner and EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton met Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama, in Brussels on Monday to voice their concern.

A statement by the European Commission underlined that the EU, as a co-chair of the Sri Lanka Peace Process, is watching events in the north of the country very closely following the Sri Lankan army’s significant military gains.

The EU leaders urged the government of Sri Lanka “to take decisive action to tackle human rights abuses, including action against the perpetrators, and to guarantee press freedom which is a fundamental component of any functioning democracy”.

They expressed the hope that the government in Sri Lanka “will now give priority to outlining and implementing an ambitious and sustainable political solution which can put Sri Lanka on the path towards peace and reconciliation between communities”.

One specific area of worry is the recently announced 35 sq. km. “safe zone” for Tamil civilians. The Sri Lankan government claims that this patch has been created for the safety of Tamil civilians trapped in the fighting and that Tamils were free to come into this area.

On Tuesday the United Nations issued a statement warning that hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in areas of heavy fighting in Sri Lanka’s north are in serious danger. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked the Sri Lankan government and the rebels “to allow and facilitate the movement of 250,000 civilians currently in the area of fighting to safe areas”.

The U.N. said the Secretary-General is “deeply concerned that the civilian population in the area is in increasingly dire need of humanitarian aid, including food, water, sanitation, and shelter.”

The UN had been transporting food supplies into the conflict areas since October after international agencies were directed to leave the areas amid deteriorating security. But it is proving impossible for the UN teams to continue the relief operations.

“The situation of the civilians is increasingly untenable,” Gordon Weiss, UN spokesman in Sri Lanka has been quoted as saying. “They are directly in the path of the fighting and we have many reports of clusters of civilians being killed and wounded by artillery fire.”

“People are being caught in the crossfire, hospitals and ambulances have been hit by shelling and several aid workers have been injured while evacuating the wounded,” Jacques de Maio, ICRC head of operations for South Asia in Geneva said in a statement on the ICRC Web site.

“When the dust settles, we may see countless victims and a terrible humanitarian situation, unless civilians are protected and international humanitarian law is respected in all circumstances,” Maio said.

The situation is so grim, ICRC’s Bakshi said, that “India must fly in aid immediately without being invited. It must also make it clear that this is a humanitarian mission and not a geo-political issue”.

Indian strategic experts, while viewing the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka with concern, welcome the Sri Lankan Army’s victory against the terrorist LTTE, which was responsible for the assassination of former Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in May 1991.

Gandhi’s assassination was said to have been carried out to avenge the deaths of several top LTTE leaders after the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) created under the mandate of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord became embroiled in the civil war. India withdrew the IPKF in 1990 and has since stayed out of the conflict on the island.

Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Vinod Saighal, author of several books on terrorism and strategic expert, said: “With the comprehensive defeat of the LTTE, there is no question that the southern part of the subcontinent stands stabilised.”

“India has not interfered in the Sri Lankan conflict and in fact has tacitly backed the [Rajapakse] government,” Saighal opined. “Now is the time to reach out to the Tamil community in that country to prevent tragedy”.

“As an insurgent force, the LTTE has been completely crushed”, said Raman.

“During the IPKF operations too the LTTE was pushed to the jungles but subsequently managed to come out. This time, the world situation is totally different,” Raman said. ”The LTTE is now a declared global terrorist organisation whose funding and arming has been slashed. It is badly weakened and will find it difficult to survive.”

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