Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Sri Lanka: Poor security restricting aid access in north

COLOMBO, 9 January 2008 (IRIN) - The rapidly deteriorating security situation in Sri Lanka has already affected the ability of aid agencies to work in the conflict-ridden north.

In mid-December, all international agencies working in Mullaithivu District and parts of Kilinochchi District (both under the control of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka's north) were asked by the Tigers to cease operations in those areas and move staff out.

According to officials with the UN and international aid agencies, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) informed them through the government agent in Mullaithivu, Imalda Sukumar, in mid-December that they could not guarantee the security of international staff based in Mullaithivu.

"We take the security of staff very seriously and we had to take the decision to move out," Deputy Country Head of World Food Programme (WFP) Jean-Yves Lequime told IRIN. "The Mullaithivu staff were relocated to Kilinochchi after we received the information."

The access restrictions affect 21 international agencies working in LTTE-held areas in Sri Lanka's north. They include UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

WFP unable to deliver food to 32,000

The WFP pullout has meant it has been unable to deliver food to 32,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Mullaithivu District over the past three weeks. The curtailment also meant no food supplies for other programmes, including Food for Education (FFE), Food for Training (FFT), Food for Work (FFW) and Mother and Child Nutrition (MCN), in the district, according to an Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) situation report released on 20 December.

"Movement restrictions within the Mullaithivu District over the past three weeks are affecting humanitarian activities such as FFE, FFW, FFT, MCN and other livelihood support programmes," according to a 2 January IASC situation report. [LINK TO IASC REPORT/S]

The IASC report said the restrictions applied in areas east of Kilinochchi, the political and administrative nerve centre of the Tamil Tigers, 250km north of Colombo. The LTTE warning came as confrontations along the line of control southeast of Mullaithivu increased in mid-December.

Limited access

To respond to the impending food shortages in her district, the government agent in Mullaithivu, Imalda Sukumar, undertook to transport WFP supplies brought to Kilinochchi back to Mullaithivu. "I sent lorries to Kilinochchi to bring the supplies," Sukumar told IRIN. "The agencies having to limit their work here due to security has already had a bad impact."

The few international agencies, including WFP and ICRC, that continue any assistance projects in Mullaithivu now travel to the district during the day and return to Kililinochchi at night, according Sukumar. "No one stays here overnight any more."

The WFP sends staff three days per week to oversee distribution of supplies in the district, WFP's Lequime said. "We told the Tigers and the government agent that WFP officials have to be present when distribution of food supplies takes place," he said.

Conflict set to escalate?

More fighting is expected in the coming weeks following the Sri Lankan government's withdrawal from the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), a truce with the Tigers signed in February 2002. The truce will formally end on 16 January.

"In my view, currently Sri Lanka [government forces] is trying to enter through the A-32 [highway] to Pooneryn [on the northwestern coast], or use the A-34 [south of Mullaithivu] to advance through Oddisuddaan," senior Tiger leader K. V. Balakumaran said in an interview with a Tiger-run TV station two weeks ago. "One of these highways will result in being renamed the highway of death."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned of an escalation of violence and requested the fighting parties to ensure the safety of civilians. "The Secretary-General urges all concerned to ensure the protection of civilians and enable humanitarian assistance to be provided to affected areas," the UN said in statement on 3 January.

International agencies, including WFP, are taking each day at a time and constantly re-evaluating the security situation in the north. "As in all areas of conflict we are constantly in touch with all the parties evaluating security; we will only work if there are security guarantees given on our staff safety, not otherwise," WFP's Lequime said.