By Leon Berenger
The Government is ready for a ‘humanitarian pause’ in the conflict zone and to allow the entry of an international task force if it strictly adheres to the modalities laid out by Sri Lanka, Defence spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella said yesterday.
“We are ready for this ‘humanitarian pause’ as suggested by the United Nations Security Council and other international players if it will pave the way to rescue the civilians who are being used as a human shield by the LTTE inside a 20 square kilometre stretch of land,” Minister Rambukwella said.
He could not say what these modalities would be but added that they would change from time to time, depending on the ground situation.
A UN Security Council call backed by the United States and Britain on Friday sought a ‘humanitarian pause’ in the fighting to allow humanitarian access to the combat areas, while at the same time blaming the LTTE for the plight of the trapped civilians.
“On an earlier occasion, the Government declared a 48-hour pause in fighting to allow the civilians to leave the conflict zone. However, the LTTE did not reciprocate and the civilians were held back,” Mr. Rambukwella said. Any future ‘pauses’ on humanitarian grounds or otherwise would be considered on terms laid down by the government and no outside influence or pressure would be tolerated, he said.
Mr.Rambukwella said the ‘safe zone’ had turned out to be the killing fields for the security forces who were suffering casualties on a daily basis because they could not retaliate for fear of hitting the civilians.
“We have stopped air sorties and the use of heavy weapons against the enemy because of the civilian factor.
But at the same time the LTTE is using this to its advantage by taking on the security forces while hiding behind the cover of civilians. “The Government is not interested in a ceasefire at this stage. Once the civilians are rescued, then the security forces will eliminate the LTTE,” he said.
At Thursday’s informal UN Security Council meeting, the United States accused Sri Lanka of not honouring its promise to stop shelling a no-fire-zone where thousands of civilians were trapped by fighting between the government forces and the LTTE.
“We have urged the Government of Sri Lanka to cease the shelling near civilian areas,” Deputy US Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo said.
“We condemn the LTTE, and we certainly condemn the fact that they use civilians as human shields,” she said calling for a temporary ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into the no-fire-zone and get the civilians out of the conflict area.
Sri Lankas UN envoy H.M.G.S. Palihakkara vehemently rejected accusations by the US that the security forces were firing into the no-fire-zone, but acknowledged that the government forces were returning fire when attacked from the other side.
“The Government forces are not firing heavy weapons into the safe zone because the military has come so close that there is no sense in firing with short range heavy weapons. The LTTE is firing from the no-fire-zone and the return fire may have resulted in some civilian casualties but not deliberately,” Mr. Palihakkara told reporters outside the UN in New York.
In a response to another question, Mr. Palihakkara said the Government was ready to get the civilians out even today, but the issue was that the LTTE was not willing to let that happen.
Meanwhile China and Russia opposed any formal discussion on the Sri Lankan issue at the UN Security Council saying that fighting between the LTTE and government forces represented no threat to international peace and security and was therefore no business of the Council.