Sri Lanka , relief groups discuss aid for displaced
Fri September 12, 2008 14:01 EDT .
RAVI NESSMAN - Associated Press Writer - COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - (AP) The government and international aid groups began working on Friday on a deal to deliver emergency food aid to 160,000 civilians displaced by Sri Lanka - 's raging civil war in the wake of a ban on relief agencies in rebel-held areas.
Aid groups and U.N. agencies have already begun to withdraw their staff and equipment from the northern areas under Tamil Tiger control, though they have expressed concern that many will starve as a result of the government's order that humanitarian groups leave the war zone.
An aid official said Friday's meeting ended without a decision on the major issue of how to ensure that aid continues to flow into the conflict area, but that the two sides would meet again to discuss it. The government has agreed to allow local staff to stay to assist with the distribution of stocks left behind, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he thought the government should announce the results of the discussion.
Government officials involved in the talks did not immediately return calls for comment.
The talks came amid a resurgent government offensive that has captured swaths of territory from the Tamil Tigers in recent weeks. The military has vowed to defeat the rebels and end the 25-year civil war by the end of the year.
New fighting along the front lines Thursday killed 41 rebels and one soldier, the military said in a statement.
With most lines of communication to the north cut, rebel spokesmen could not be reached for comment. It was not possible to independently verify the military's claims because most journalists are banned from the war zone.
As tens of thousands of civilians fled their homes to escape the fighting, the government on Monday ordered humanitarian groups and U.N. agencies to evacuate their staffs and leave the rebel areas for their own safety.
The U.N. agencies and 13 aid groups in the region provided emergency food aid, clean water and sanitation to the displaced.
Internal documents circulated among the aid groups and obtained by The Associated Press show that the U.N. World Food Program was feeding nearly 120,000 displaced people, while private aid agencies were feeding 40,000. The groups were also in the process of building thousands of shelters for those forced from their homes.
Some aid groups have already shut down their operations to comply with the government order, while others were wrapping up their work, said Jeevan Thayagarajah, executive director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, an umbrella group for relief groups.
Hundreds of civilians protested Friday against the aid groups' departure. Dozens blocked a convoy of trucks that was carrying humanitarian workers and equipment from the area, according to aid workers.
``They wanted us to stay there basically,'' U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross will remain in the area under a special agreement with the government that takes into consideration the group's unique role as an intermediary between the two parties, said ICRC spokeswoman Aleksandra Matijevic.
Even before the government decision, the escalating fighting was making it difficult for aid groups to work in the area. One aid official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to release details of the operations in rebel areas, said relief workers spent hours a day taking refuge in bunkers because of increased government air raids.
The rebels have been fighting for an independent state in the north and east since 1983, following decades of marginalization of ethnic Tamils by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
Published: Fri Sep 12 18:26:22 EDT 2008