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Civilians Caught In Sri Lanka Crossfire


Concern is growing around the world about what's happening in Sri Lanka. Aid agencies say a quarter of a million civilians are trapped in the north of the island in the middle of a war zone. There are reports that several hundred civilians have been killed and hospital records suggest more than 1,100 have been wounded. Sri Lankan forces are trying to defeat the Tamil Tigers separatists they've been fighting off and on for a quarter of a century. NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES: The long war in Sri Lanka has reached a watershed. The Sri Lankan army has pushed the Tamil Tigers out of their strongholds in the islands north and east, bottling them up in a pocket of jungle. As the army advanced, a lot of civilians, Tamil farmers and fishermen and their families, fled their villages to escape the fighting.

Mr. GORDON WEISS (United Nations Spokesman, Sri Lanka): Now, there's really nowhere for them to go, so they've become pretty much mixed up with a very ferocious battle that the Tamil Tigers are fighting for their own survival.

REEVES: That's Gordon Weiss, spokesman for the United Nations in Sri Lanka.

Mr. WEISS: This is obviously the most critical point I think we've arrived at in this conflict in a very, very long time. This is a huge proportion of people who are trapped in very dangerous circumstances.

REEVES: They're trapped in Sri Lanka's northern region of Vanni, in the middle of the conflict zone. Simon Schorno is a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva.

Mr. SIMON SCHORNO (Spokesman, International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva): Basically, we see a humanitarian crisis unfolding. About 250,000 people have been trapped in a fairly small area of 250 square kilometers, intense fighting there, hospitals hit by cross-fires, ambulances hit.

REEVES: The Red Cross says hundreds of people have been killed in recent fighting. It says ill-equipped medical facilities in the war zone are being overwhelmed by the wounded. The situation is worrying Sri Lanka's giant neighbor, India. India has a large Tamil population. Its foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, went to Sri Lanka to meet the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Mukherjee says he raised the issue.

Mr. PRANAB MUKHERJEE (Indian Foreign Minister): We are concerned with the civilians. I requested the president to take care of the civilians.

REEVES: Allegations are flying over whether blame for civilian deaths lies with the Tamil Tigers or the Sri Lankan army. The government has created a no-fire zone in Vanni for civilians seeking refuge and promises to respect it. A Sri Lankan military spokesman told the Associated Press today that no civilians have been killed, but Gordon Weiss of the United Nations says U.N. staff saw at least 20 killed last weekend.

Mr. WEISS: There were barrages of artillery fire coming into this area which had been declared a no-fire zone by the government. Our own staff, who happened to be trapped up there in that pocket of territory, witnessed the killing and injury of dozens of people.

REEVES: The U.N. is hoping to bring a convoy of seriously injured people out of the war zone tomorrow. It says they include 50 children. Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.