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After Sri Lankan army forces overran parts of the last stretch of territory held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on 1 April 2009, a statement from the defence ministry in Colombo announced that they had found the bodies of over seventy LTTE cadre. The statement went on to detail the spoils of war: the numbers of captured rifles, grenade-launchers, and mortars. As for civilian deaths and injuries - despite what was evidently hard fighting in populated areas - not a word! Indeed, except to assert its own blamelessness, the ministry has been silent on the more than 3,000 civilians believed to have been killed in the fighting since January (see "Sri Lanka under siege", 30 January 2009).  

A military that counts seized landmines but not killed or wounded civilians is a cause for concern. The LTTE, which has refused to let tens of thousands of civilians flee the fighting, shows as little regard for civilians. But that's not a standard Sri Lanka's government should try to emulate. 

Tens of thousands of terrified civilians are trapped in a dangerous conflict-zone. The military says that the remaining LTTE cadre - along with their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran - have effectively hidden themselves among the civilians in a government-declared "no-fire zone". As the military plans the final defeat of the LTTE in this twenty-six-year conflict, the fact that the army has repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled these zones means that fear for the safety of civilians has increased.

A brutalised country

This terrible plight of civilians is hardly surprising. 

The LTTE has itself long been responsible for horrific human-rights abuses. These include forcibly recruiting people to serve its cause; turning schoolchildren into combatants; using Claymore landmines and human-bombs; indiscriminate killings and outright murder. During the 2002-08 ceasefire, the LTTE continued to commit systematic human-rights abuses, not least in the territory it controlled. 

Sri Lankan governments, in an effort to appease the majority Sinhalese population, have consistently failed to address Tamil grievances; this has helped the Tigers to build support among the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. But the present government of Mahinda Rajapakse is hoping that its current military campaign will finally mark an end of the LTTE. Since 2006, when both sides resumed major military operations, the conflict has killed and wounded thousands of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands, leaving many suffering from disease and hunger. 

To ensure its success, the Sri Lankan government has chosen to silence dissident voices. Many of those demanding another approach or criticising government actions or policies are accused of being closet LTTE supporters or otherwise sympathetic to terrorists. Journalists and human-rights defenders wonder when they might fall prey to a bullet or be subjected to arbitrary detention. Many have fled the country. Meanwhile, all over Sri Lanka, Tamils are treated as suspects, often asked to report for profiling and identification.

As the military made significant gains in reclaiming virtually all of northern Sri Lanka previously held by the LTTE, the Tigers have withdrawn. But with utter disregard for the international laws of war, they have scooped up civilians to be used as combatants, provide labour to build trenches and bunkers, and now to serve as human shields. These are Tamils, the people that the LTTE claims to represent and protect - yet, it is deliberately putting them in danger. 

The army, as it marched victorious through towns and villages, found abandoned homes, schools, churches and temples. For over two years, the Sri Lankan government was aware that civilians were being forced to accompany the retreating LTTE - for the Tigers have also used this strategy in the past. Yet the government has made no attempt to secure the safety of its citizens held hostage by the enemy. It could have helped them to escape much earlier, ensuring that displaced escape the fighting and are treated in accordance with international standards - creating fears in the minds of many Tamils that they will be persecuted, both now and when the fighting is over. Instead, it has only recently set up detention-camps for the 60,000 or so displaced persons who have managed to

An urgent need

As the military fired into the few square kilometers still held by the Tigers, there were widespread reports of civilian casualties. The government says it is doing its best to avoid these, and has routinely denied that its shells were landing on civilians. When questioned by the United Nations, diplomats or journalists, the military has claimed that the casualties are not necessarily civilians.

An official statement said: "It has been found that the terrorists fight in civil clothes and when they get wounded they can be mistakenly considered as civilians", but it added that there could be accidental injuries to non-combatants if they were in the line of fire. These dangerous statements convey the opposite of what is needed: for as LTTE militants merge with displaced civilians, the Sri Lankan army needs to demonstrate greater - not less - restraint. 

It is impossible to know exactly what is going on in many combat-zones. The government has expelled virtually all humanitarian agencies and has kept independent journalists far from the combat-zone. The United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has called for the protection of trapped civilians, asking the LTTE "to allow civilians to leave the conflict-area of their own free will", and reminded the Sri Lankan government of "its responsibility to protect civilians, and to avoid the use of heavy weapons in areas where there are civilians, as promised."

The international community needs to take decisive steps to ensure that the  war's victims are protected. It should work with concerned governments that have supported the Sri Lankan government's efforts against the LTTE; and with those in the Tamil diaspora who have for so long backed the LTTE, and encourage them to speak up for Tamil civilians caught up in the fighting. 

The LTTE must stop placing civilians at risk and instead allow them to evacuate the combat-zone. The Sri Lankan government for its part should make every effort, including seeking the assistance of international experts, to rescue civilians - and request humanitarian agencies to provide them with appropriate care and protection. Both sides should agree to an emergency evacuation of civilians before more die or are maimed. Every day that passes is a stain on the consciences of those who could have saved new victims. 

Meenakshi Ganguly is senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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