Sri Lankan military sees eastern operation winding up, hopes to resettle displaced
Sun September 3, 2006 04:52 EDT .
Associated Press Writer
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Sri Lanka's military said Sunday it was advancing ``slowly but surely'' on a rebel-held enclave in the east, where a week of near-daily shelling and airstrikes has sent hundreds of families fleeing, putting pressure on already overcrowded refugee camps.
A resurgent civil conflict between ethnic Tamil rebels and the Sinhalese-dominated state has forced at least 220,000 people from their homes since April, including 40,000 who fled during a fierce battle for control of Muttur, a mostly Muslim town in the east, in late July, according to the United Nations.
Aid agencies have called for greater access to the displaced, many of whom are living in squalid refugee camps in the north and east with dwindling food stocks and medical supplies.
A second cargo ship carrying 3,800 tons of food and medicine supplied by the Sri Lankan government was expected to leave the capital on Sunday for the besieged northern Jaffna peninsula.
Jaffna has been virtually isolated since Aug. 11, when the Tigers made a major push to reclaim the army-controlled peninsula, which they consider the heart of ethnic Tamil culture. Private air, road and sea transport was cut, leaving hundreds of foreign passport holders and international aid workers stranded.
About 15 international U.N. staff were expected to take a private AeroLanka flight out of Jaffna on Monday morning, a U.N. staff worker in Jaffna who declined to give his name told The Associated Press.
Dozens of international aid workers in Jaffna and eastern Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts _ areas which have seen some of the fiercest fighting since a 2002 cease-fire _ have reported harassment by security forces asking for work permits and other documents, the U.N. humanitarian affairs office said in its latest report on Sri Lanka.
Deteriorating security and mounting restrictions on travel and work has prevented aid reaching those who most desperately need it, including about 600,000 people made homeless by more than 20 years of war and the 2004 tsunami.
The Tigers have been battling the government since 1983 for a separate homeland for the country's ethnic Tamil minority, who endured decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.
The conflict cost the lives of about 65,000 people until Norway brokered a cease-fire, which now appears in tatters after months of fierce fighting along the borders between rebel- and government-held territories.
Last weekend, the military launched a major operation to flush rebels from Sampur, an area in the east, which it said the Tigers were using to fire mortars and artillery at the Trincomalee naval base.
Soldiers have advanced to about two kilometers (1.25 miles) outside Sampur, but have been slowed down by mines and explosive booby traps laid by the rebels, military spokesman Maj. Upali Rajapakse said Sunday.
He said security forces continued to pound Tamil Tiger artillery bases in Sampur overnight. ``We are slowly but surely achieving our aim,'' he said.
The military insists that the operation to reclaim Sampur and four adjoining villages is based on ``humanitarian grounds'' as Muslims there were being threatened by ethnic Tamil rebels.
Insurgents are also accused of forcibly evicting Muslims _ the country's second largest ethnic minority after the Tamils _ from areas under their control.
A military official earlier said that all civilians could return to Muttur by Monday, but Ashok Ahmed, from the international aid agency Muslim Aid, said resettlement was likely to take at least a month.
He said some people have already started to return.
The top government official in Trincomalee, Maj. Gen. T.T.R. De Silva, insisted Muttur was safe.
``There is no fighting, no shelling in Muttur,'' he said, adding that electricity, water and medical facilities have been restored and about 600 families have already returned home.
The military claims to have killed 119 Tigers and wounded 100 more since Aug. 26, when it launched the Sampur operation. It says only 14 soldiers have died, with 92 wounded.
The rebels reported 82 deaths _ 50 government soldiers, 12 rebel fighters and 20 civilians.
Both sides routinely inflate the other's death tolls and independent confirmation is virtually impossible as conflict zones are off-limit to outsiders.
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Published: Sun Sep 3 05:44:41 EDT 2006