Hundreds of protesters stone Red Cross offices in Colombo

February 06, 2009

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An angry mob stoned the offices of the Red Cross in Sri Lanka's capital today as the government accused it of sowing panic by ordering 35,000 body bags for civilians killed in the campaign against the Tamil Tiger rebels.

About 200 protesters gathered outside the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Colombo around noon, chanting slogans such as "ICRC go home!" and smashing several windows with stones.

No one was hurt, but the incident highlighted the sensitivity surrounding the issue of civilian casualties as the army presses ahead with its campaign to defeat the Tigers and bring a permanent end to the island's 25-year civil war.

The ICRC, the United Nations and various human rights groups have expressed concern about the safety of an estimated 250,000 civilians trapped with the rebels in a 66-square mile patch of northeastern jungle. Britain, the United States and several other foreign governments have called for a ceasefire.
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But the government has rejected their appeals, accusing the Tigers of using civilians as human shields, and blaming Western diplomats, journalists and aid workers for "sensationalising" civilian casualties.

Keheliya Rambukwella, the government's defence spokesman, accused the ICRC today of inciting panic by placing an unnecessarily large order for body bags to be used in the conflict zone.

"The ICRC has ordered 35,000 body bags for the conflict area and we got to know about this last evening," he told reporters. "By placing such an order, the ICRC is trying to create international fear."

The ICRC said it had ordered 2,000 body bags at the beginning of the year for use in transferring dead combatants between the two sides.

"We have no idea where this figure of 35,000 comes from," Sophie Romanens, a spokeswoman for the ICRC in Colombo, told The Times. "This was a routine order and the bags are used to transfer bodies of fallen fighters between both sides."

She added that 400 patients who fled a hospital in Tiger territory after it was repeatedly shelled this week were sheltering in a school and community centre on the coast.

They had 18 ICRC staff with them, but insufficient supplies of drinkable water, and only as much medicine as they were able to load onto a single truck when they left the hospital, she said.

"The situation is getting even more critical."

The United Nations' food relief agency said that all 250,000 people in the conflict zone were now facing a food crisis due to "continuous displacement, crop failure and recent floods".

"There is complete dependence on humanitarian food assistance for survival," said World Food Programme (WFP) spokeswoman Emilia Casella.

She said the last convoy, with a week's supply of food for 230,000 displaced people, entered the conflict zone on January 16, but the WFP had not been able to send any supplies in since then.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, spoke to Sri Lanka's President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, by telephone yesterday to discuss the humanitarian situation in the conflict zone.
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Mr Rajapaksa issued a statement saying he had reassured Mr Ban that "military operations to defeat terrorism in Sri Lanka would be carried out without harassment to the civilian population."

But other Sri Lankan leaders emphatically ruled out a ceasefire, saying the Tigers were on the verge of defeat.

"Nothing could be as ridiculous as this," Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is the Defense Secretary and the President's younger brother, told the Island newspaper yesterday.

"Nothing short of unconditional surrender of arms and cadres could bring an end to the offensive," he said.

The Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for a homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority to protect them from discrimination at the hands of the ethnic Sinhalese majority.

But the rebels are now cornered in the district of Mullaittivu and President Rajapaksa says they will be defeated within days.

The army announced yesterday that it had captured what it said was the rebels' last sea base, shortly after taking what it believes was the last of their six air strips.

The capture of the Chalai sea base cuts off the Tigers' last major supply route and leaves them with access to just 12 miles of coastline in Mullaittivu. Independent verification is impossible because Sri Lanka's government has banned most journalists and aid workers from the conflict zone for several months.