The United Nations warned Friday of a food crisis in Sri Lanka's north

February 06, 2009

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The United Nations warned Friday of a food crisis in Sri Lanka's north where some 250,000 civilians are trapped in fighting between government forces and Tamil rebels on the verge of defeat.

The military said it chalked up more victories on the ground, capturing the headquarters of a Tamil Tiger regiment responsible for the security of their top leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, on Friday.

"Troops surrounded the area so fast that the (fleeing) terrorists couldn't even take their flag," military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.

The military's relentless offensive in recent months has almost routed the Tamil Tigers, virtually ending their 25-year war for a separate Tamil nation in the Sinhalese-majority country.

Nanayakkara said about 600 civilians fled the war zone Friday, joining thousands who have escaped in the past few days. The government says it is not targeting civilians, and accuses the rebels of using them as human shields.

But evidence has grown in recent days of mounting civilian casualties in the shrinking sliver of land still controlled by the rebels.

Reports from the sealed war zone, known as Vanni, are spotty. But the top health official there said last week that 300 civilians had been killed, and the U.N. said at least 52 civilians were killed Tuesday.

Amnesty International called on both sides to declare a cease-fire to allow civilians out and to let food, water and medical supplies be delivered to those who can't leave.

"A quarter of a million people are suffering without adequate food and shelter while shells rain down upon them," said Yolanda Foster, a researcher at the London-based rights group.

Emilia Casella, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, told reporters in Geneva that the entire population of Vanni is facing a food crisis.

Some 250,000 people there are completely dependent on humanitarian aid, but WFP has not been able to get a supply convoy into the conflict zone since Jan. 16, she said.

A convoy that was supposed to enter during a four-hour "humanitarian window" Thursday could not go because the agency did not receive the necessary clearance from government officials, she said.

The earliest they would be able to send in another convoy is next Thursday, she said.

"We don't have any more stocks to be distributed, and our staff are essentially hiding at the moment," Casella said. WFP has 16 staff members and 81 dependents in the Vanni area.

Despite growing concerns over the fate of civilians, the government has rejected calls for a cease-fire to allow them to escape the fighting.

On Thursday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa assured U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a 15-minute telephone conversation that the offensive "would be carried out without harassment to the civilian population," a statement from the president's office said.

Some 70,000 people have died in the Tamil conflict, which began in 1983 after years of marginalization of the Tamil minority by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.