Civilians the victims in Sri Lankan conflict
The Sri Lankan government's 25-year fight against separatist Tamil rebels has had a tragic toll: at least 70,000 people have been killed and many more injured, the majority of them civilians. This is despite humanitarian law dictating that the combatants in war have to take every feasible precaution to protect innocent lives. The conflict has reached a crucial stage, with the guerillas boxed by the military into a 300 sq km corner of their claimed homeland - but in their midst are 250,000 non-fighters. Only by both sides putting moral responsibility ahead of ideology can the catastrophe that is plainly in the offing be averted.
They have in all but a handful of instances steadfastly refused to do this. Journalists and humanitarian workers have little access to the conflict zone, so what is happening amid the gunfire and shelling is mostly guesswork. It would seem that there have already been hundreds of civilian deaths. Many of the wounded and dying are being denied medical help, and food is scarce.
The civil war has been as much about propaganda as fighting. Claims made by each side have to be treated with scepticism. The rebels claim the army is shelling a no-fire zone it set up last week. Military officers accuse the guerillas of moving artillery into civilian areas and trying to use their plight to win a ceasefire. Human rights groups and the government say the rebels, who call themselves the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, keep civilians in their territory for use as fighters, workers and human shields. One watchdog, the US-based Human Rights Watch, accuses the government of detaining civilians who manage to flee in 'militarised detention camps'. There is no doubt that the army has prevented humanitarian aid from being allowed into the battle area. Only yesterday did the Tigers let injured civilians out so that they could receive treatment. One UN agency says shells landed near a building in which its workers and their relatives were sheltering.
International rules of conflict have to be respected. The combatants have to do their utmost to avoid civilian casualties. People that have been wounded must be allowed to receive medical treatment. Guns have to fall silent to allow those caught up in the fighting to head for safety. This is easier said than done. Government forces sense victory. The rebels are locked in a do-or-die situation and obstinately refuse to give in. A bitter fight to the end is under way.
Civilians have always, and now more than ever, borne the brunt of the civil war. They have fallen prey to more than two decades of Tamil suicide bombings and indiscriminate government air strikes and shells. Now, they are caught in crossfire. The government and rebels have to respect international laws and take urgent action to prevent large-scale civilian deaths.