Red Cross office attacked in Sri Lanka

COLOMBO (AFP) – A stone-throwing mob attacked the offices of the Red Cross in Sri Lanka’s capital on Friday as the government accused the agency of inciting panic over civilian deaths from fighting with Tamil Tiger rebels.

Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had placed an order for 35,000 body bags to be used in the northeast where Tiger rebels have been cornered by the military.

“There is no need for 35,000 body bags or for that matter 3,500,” Rambukwella told reporters shortly after the attack on the ICRC main office in a high security area of Colombo.

“They may cancel the order tomorrow. But first they want to create a fear psychosis in the eyes of the international community,” he said.

Sri Lanka had denied an ICRC statement last week that “hundreds” of civilians had been killed in fighting between the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The crowd of around 200 protesters that gathered outside the Red Cross office shouted slogans, including “ICRC go home,” before being dispersed by police.

“They were shouting slogans and pelting stones. No one was hurt fortunately, but some windows were broken,” ICRC spokeswoman Sophie Romanens told AFP.

The office is located next to the residence of a tightly-guarded government minister.

Romanens confirmed an order for body bags but rejected the figure provided by Rambukwella.

“We help in the transfer of bodies of combatants across the front lines and for this we need body bags, but the number we have ordered is far, far less than 35,000,” she said.

The ICRC has a presence in Sri Lanka’s embattled northeast and has also acted as a neutral intermediary in transporting the remains of combatants across front lines.

Those front lines were moving rapidly on Friday with the military taking more bases from the Tamil Tigers, who have been pushed back into a narrow patch of coastal jungle in Mullaittivu.

The United Nations says that as many as 250,000 civilians could be trapped in the rebel-held area.

With government forces pressing forward, more than 2,500 civilians managed to escape the combat zone on Friday, state radio said, adding that another 3,000 were “waiting to come over.”

The security forces seized a large quantity of automatic assault rifles, detonators and hand grenades from three LTTE camps, a military official said.

One of the camps belonged to the “Ratha unit,” which provided security to elusive Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, the official said. The whereabouts of the rebel leader are still unclear.

“Clearing operations are now under way,” he said, adding that troops were consolidating their hold on the Chalai Sea Tiger base seized on Thursday.

With the fall of Chalai, the Tigers now only have access to 20 kilometres (12 miles) of coastline in the northeastern district.

The military said the area under rebel control had shrunk to less than 100 square kilometres (38 square miles).

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon telephoned President Mahinda Rajapakse to discuss the plight of the non-combatants and was given an “assurance” they would not be harassed, a government statement said.

The United Nations reported at least 52 civilian deaths in a single shelling incident earlier this week — though it did not say who was responsible.

International rights groups and foreign governments have urged the Tigers to allow civilians safe passage.

The United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway have also asked the rebels to lay down their arms and take part in a political dialogue.

Source : AFP

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