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Sunday, February 1

Escalating humanitarian crisis threatens 250,000

The international outcry over the plight of the estimated 250,000 - 500,000 civilians caught up in the heavy fighting in northern Sri Lanka is shared by New Zealand international development groups.

"Along with the threat of being killed in the crossfire they face life-threatening deprivations following the Sri Lankan government's refusal to allow humanitarian NGOs access to the Vanni region," says New Zealand Council for International Development (CID) Executive Director David Culverhouse.

"Reports we have had from our members indicate people in this region have been facing a humanitarian crisis for months. Recent events mean the situation for the displaced is now extremely serious. These people are trapped in a war zone."

"So-called 'safe-zones' made available for the displaced by the Sri Lankan government have come under attack, and the Sri Lankan government's refusal to allow NGOs to provide humanitarian assistance and monitor human rights abuses means at least a quarter of a million people could be facing a bloodbath"

Jacques de Maio, Red Cross head of operations for South Asia recently remarked that "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."[i]

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on combatants to "accord immediate and absolute priority to ensuring the protection and well-being of civilians, including humanitarian aid workers".[ii]

Attacks on the 'safe zones' mean displaced people have nowhere to go to avoid the conflict. UN spokesman Gordon Weiss says: "This is a serious crisis. Our staff were in the designated safe area and there was incoming fire from artillery shells. There were shells which killed and wounded dozens of people, the last of which was Monday morning when 10 people were killed and many more were wounded. They have seen this first hand."

A recently released report from the New York-based Genocide Prevention Project places Sri Lanka on its 'red-alert' list of countries where existing tensions or human rights abuses could escalate into systematic mass atrocity crimes such as genocide.

To avoid this catastrophic scenario, CID strongly urges the New Zealand government to use all diplomatic means to move towards:

* An immediate ceasefire by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE and steps made towards a political resolution to the conflict; * The Sri Lankan government immediately allowing humanitarian NGOs, UN relief agencies and journalists full access to civilians in restricted zones; * An immediate halt to any attacks on civilians or on designated 'safe-zones'.

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