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Civilian Casualties Rising in Sri Lanka Conflict

by Amnesty International, April 21, 2009

In the last week, Amnesty International has received reports of a number of enforced disappearances of young Tamil men separated from their families during the screening process.

More than 4,500 civilians are believed to have died in the fighting according to UN estimates in north eastern region in Sri Lanka. There were hundreds of civilian casualties reported on Monday alone. Immediate action must be taken by all parties concerned to prevent further mass killings of civilian/non-combatants.

An estimated 100,000 civilians remain trapped in the conflict zone between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army in the north of the country. On Monday, the Sri Lankan government gave the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) 24 hours to lay down their arms or face further attack in a "final offensive" raising concerns that civilian casualties could spiral.

"The security of civilians trapped between Sri Lankan forces and the Tamil Tigers is paramount," said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International's Sri Lanka expert. "The plight of these civilians demands that the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE take all necessary measures immediately to prevent unlawful killing of civilians and that they fully comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law.

"The LTTE and the Sri Lankan government must cease hostilities with immediate effect and agree to extend a humanitarian pause for a reasonable duration, in order to permit civilians to leave as well as the reopening of access routes for food, water and medical supplies. "

Both parties have an obligation to comply with international humanitarian law in all circumstances. However, the government appears to have resorted to the use of heavy weapons such as artillery, which is intended for use on conventional battlefields and are not capable of pinpoint targeting. The use of artillery in densely populated areas is likely to lead to indiscriminate attacks.

"The Tamil Tigers must cease forced recruitment, the use of civilians as human shields and deliberate attacks on civilians who have tried to escape from areas under their control," said Yolanda Foster. "They must immediately allow those civilians who wish to leave to do so."

According to reports, over 35,000 civilians have been able to exit the combat zone in the last few days. In the last week, Amnesty International has received reports of a number of enforced disappearances of young Tamil men separated from their families during the screening process.

"The Sri Lankan authorities should allow international monitors to visit ‘reception centres,’ to help reassure both fleeing civilians and surrendered LTTE fighters that they will be treated according to international standards," said Yolanda Foster.

Amnesty International has urged the United Nations Security Council to discuss the crisis without any further delay.

"The Council must express concern at the escalation of violence and the deteriorating humanitarian and human rights situation, in particular the resulting heavy civilian casualties of recent days," said Yolanda Foster.

"The Council must call for a humanitarian truce, urge that the government and the LTTE immediately take all necessary steps to fully comply with their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, and stress that the perpetrators of grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law must be held individually responsible and prosecuted for such violations.

"The situation is extremely bleak and calls for immediate action. Both parties must fully observe their obligations under international humanitarian law to limit civilian casualties and ensure that critical humanitarian assistance reaches families in desperate need,” said Yolanda Foster.