UNITED NATIONS – The Sri Lankan government, which has come under heavy fire for the massive humanitarian crisis in the country’s war zone, is winning the 25-year-old military conflict but is on the verge of losing the propaganda war overseas.
"It is a very stressful time here," said Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona, a former chief of the UN Treaty Section.
Although the military has scored unbelievable gains, he said, the last ditch effort by the rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), is painful.
In an interview with IPS, Kohona said: "The LTTE is trying to save its neck by surrounding itself with reluctant civilians ‘lambs to the slaughter’ and throwing Kalashnikov-armed children and old people against the army."
"People are getting killed. But not in the numbers highlighted by the LTTE propaganda machine," he added.
During the past few weeks, LTTE supporters overseas have organized huge demonstrations in Western Europe, Canada, and the United States accusing the government of war crimes.
Human rights groups have strongly criticized both sides and urged the government to permit access to UN humanitarian teams trying to reach the besieged civilians.
Walter Kalin, the UN representative for the Human Rights of Displaced Persons, said Friday that at least 50,000 people are still trapped in the conflict zone and they are "exposed to great danger and without access to sufficient humanitarian access."
They are caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan military forces and the LTTE, which is using them as human shields.
"The separatist LTTE is preventing civilians from leaving the area and placing military installations close to them, while the government has been using heavy weapons such as mortars in the conflict zone in recent days," Kalin said.
Asked whether Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon plans to respond to the Sri Lankan invitation to visit the war zone, UN deputy spokesperson Marie Okabe told reporters: "The secretary-general is seriously concerned about the well-being of the people on the ground, and he is seriously considering such an invitation, if it’s going to save lives on the ground."
Meanwhile, the secretary-general has sent his Chief of Staff Vijay Nambiar to Sri Lanka the second time in less than four weeks to assess the ground situation and report back.
After a closed door meeting of the Security Council Wednesday, the Council president, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin of Russia, issued a press statement, approved by all 15 members, expressing "grave concern over the worsening humanitarian crisis in northeast Sri Lanka."
The members "strongly condemned" the LTTE for its acts of terrorism over many years and for its continued use of civilians as human shields.
While acknowledging the legitimate right of the government of Sri Lanka to combat terrorism, the statement expressed "deep concern" at reports of continued use of heavy caliber weapons by government forces.
Asked about the negative reports coming out of the war zone, Kohona told IPS: "I am surprised that the international media and certain national leaders, who do not seem to share the agony of Baghdad and the Swat Valley, have swallowed the LTTE propaganda hook line and sinker."
"I have been assured from the highest levels that the Sri Lankan army does not use heavy weapons and aerial bombs," he said.
He also said the government has "intercepted LTTE messages to the Tamil diaspora asking it to keep up the propaganda blitz because liberal-minded Western countries will be forced to intervene."
Unfortunately, he said, "the diaspora which has invested much in the Eelam illusion [of a separate state for the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka] will maintain the rage until the end, and the hostages will be forced to pay the price with their lives just as other people’s children were recruited to die in mosquito-infested jungles while the diaspora wrote out checks every month to salvage its conscience and placate the ghosts of 1983 [the year of ethnic riots in Sri Lanka]."
Asked about the proposal for a safe passage to the LTTE leadership in order to save civilian lives, Kohona said: "A suggestion has been made that the families of the leadership will be given safe passage, if they surrender."
Responding to widespread criticism that humanitarian organizations and the international media are being shut out of the war zone, the government has relented.
According to Kohona, about 52 international organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are operating in the camps housing internally displaced persons (IDPs).
"I have been to the camps and hospitals three times," he said, pointing out that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are present at Omanthai, the screening center, when IDPs arrive in government-controlled areas.
"The ICRC takes food and medicines to the LTTE enclave every three days. We actually feed the cadres who are fighting us," he said.
Asked about access to the media, he said that so far, 114 media groups have been given access to the camps and the front line.
(Inter Press Service)