BY ANNA ARCO
CATHOLIC AID agencies have called for an end to Sri Lankan civil war, as thousands have been killed and at least 100,000 have been displaced in the last few months of fighting.
Calls to halt the violence, which has plagued the island for the past 26 years, came as government forces rejected a ceasefire in order to gain control over the last pocket of rebel resistance. Among those calling for peace were Cafod’s Pauline Taylor-McKeown, who leads the organisation’s international programmes and Paul Chitnis, SCIAF’s chief executive. The Bishop of Colombo has also voiced strong criticism of both the government and the rebels.
The Sri Lankan government estimates that 100,000 people have been displaced in wartorn Vanni region since the fighting escalated two weeks ago.
The director of the Catholic relief organisation Caritas in the conflict zone, Fr T R Vasanthaseelan, was among the severely wounded. One of his legs has been amputated. Shells hit St Anthony’s church, Valaignarmadam, where Fr Vasanthaseelan was providing food and shelter to refugees. The 34-year-old priest was struck by artillery shrapnel while washing at a well and is awaiting possible evacuation by the Red Cross.
On Monday Sri Lankan forces renewed a pledge not to use heavy artillery in the conflict but refused to accept a ceasefire offer put forward by the Tamil Tigers.
Another aid worker, Fr James Pathinathan, of the national commission for justice peace and human development, was also badly wounded in the fighting.
The government’s security forces entered the so-called “safe zone” where the rebels used civilians as a human shield in order to gain control of the last Tamil-led pockets of the country. Both sides have violated international humanitarian law. Internal United Nations figures estimate that the fighting has claimed 6,500 lives in the last three months.
Miss Taylor-Mckeown said: “If we are to avoid a catastrophe it’s vital that a ‘real’ safe zone is respected and people are not trapped between the warring Sri Lankan government troops and the Tamil Tigers. A lasting ceasefire should be observed with a humanitarian corridor established to allow safe passage. The international community must hold both sides to their obligation to protect civilians and allow humanitarian access.” She was scathing about the assault on Vanni, which she said was not the solution to the problem. She said: “The Sri Lankan government’s biggest challenge is not the final assault on Vanni, but to bring about national reconciliation through dialogue. The cycle of conflict must be broken, and reconciliation and healing put in place. The only hope for long-term peace in the country depends on the rights and aspirations of all communities being met and respected.” Journalists and human rights monitors have been forbidden from entering the “safe zone” making access to information difficult, but Cafod, a partnerof Caritas Sri Lanka has reported miserable conditions. According to its sources in the area, food and water are in short supply and lack of medicine has meant that the sick and wounded cannot be tended.
In Colombo, Archbishop Oswald Gomis criticised the Tamil rebel leaders for using civilians as a human shield against the government attacks. He also called on the government to find a peaceful solution. Speaking to Aid to the Church in Need last week, he said: “It is my incessant prayer that this [violence] would end as early as possible – we hear of one or two leaders of the LTTE having surrendered – people must be reasonable and not let any more innocent people be killed. They must bring conflict to an end. Then we can begin forgiving each other – begin reconciliation, all people living together in equality and justice. It is my hope the conflict will end shortly: some day people have to realise the folly of fighting. Divided we will perish, united we will flourish.” Fr Damian Fernando, Caritas Sri Lanka’s director, said the organisation would continue its relief efforts as well as negotiating with the government to find a solution for peace in the country.
Fr Fernando said: “Sri Lanka is undergoing the worst scenario. Innocent civilians are paying a huge cost and are the worst hit.”