(New York) - The Sri Lankan government should stop arbitrarily detaining civilians fleeing fighting in the northern Vanni region and urgently allow humanitarian agencies to return to provide desperately needed aid, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 49-page report, "Besieged, Displaced, and Detained: The Plight of Civilians in Sri Lanka's Vanni Region," documents the Sri Lankan government's responsibility for the plight of the 230,000 to 300,000 displaced persons trapped in the Vanni conflict zone. They face severe shortages of food and other essentials because of government restrictions on humanitarian assistance. Individuals and families who have managed to flee areas controlled by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been detained in poor conditions in army-controlled camps.

"Hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped in a war zone with limited aid because the government ordered the UN and other aid workers out," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "To add insult to injury, people who manage to flee the fighting end up being held indefinitely in army-run prison camps."

The report is based on research conducted by Human Rights Watch in northern Sri Lanka from October through December 2008. In-depth interviews were conducted with officials from United Nations agencies and humanitarian organizations, diplomats, religious leaders, and civilians affected by the conflict, among others. Because of blanket government restrictions, the Vanni conflict zone is inaccessible to independent observers and journalists.

On December 12, Human Rights Watch released a 17-page report, "Trapped and Mistreated: LTTE Abuses Against Civilians in the Vanni," which documents the separatist group's brutal treatment of the ethnic Tamil population in its northern stronghold. The report details how the LTTE has refused to allow civilians in areas under its control to leave the Vanni conflict zone and how it has increased forced recruitment and forced labor practices, placing civilian lives at risk.

In September, the government ordered all United Nations and humanitarian agencies to withdraw their staff and operations from the Vanni, allowing only the International Committee of the Red Cross and the locally staffed Caritas to continue operations. Human Rights Watch research details severe humanitarian shortcomings: food deliveries for trapped civilians may be as low as 40 percent of the minimum amounts required, tens of thousands of families are in desperate need of plastic shelters, and sanitation facilities are virtually nonexistent. In November, Cyclone Nisha destroyed the shelters of an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 displaced persons, but the government refused to allow aid groups to bring in necessary shelter materials.

Since March 2008, all Tamil civilians fleeing the Vanni, as well as Tamil refugees returning from India by boat, have been detained on the assumption that they are a security threat. Approximately 1,000 civilians are being indefinitely detained under military guard at "welfare centers" in Mannar and Vavuniya districts. The government's policy violates the basic rights of displaced persons. Conditions in the camps are sub-standard, with inadequate shelter, a lack of sanitation facilities, and limited humanitarian assistance.

"The government's ‘welfare centers' for civilians fleeing the Vanni are just badly disguised prisons," said Adams. "The sad irony is that many of those now detained by the government were fleeing LTTE abuses. This detention policy is hurting the very people that the government should be helping."

Human Rights Watch's research found that government efforts, contrary to its claims, to fill the massive humanitarian gap caused by ordering aid agencies to leave have fallen far short. Available information, including from government-appointed officials in the Vanni, shows that the civilian population faces drastic shortages in food, shelter, water and sanitation supplies, and other life-sustaining services.

"The government's empty claims are not reflected on the ground, where even government officials in the Vanni are constantly sounding the alarm bells about humanitarian needs," Adams said.