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Fighting Continues in Sri Lanka as Military, Tamil Rebels Face Off

May 14, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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In Sri Lanka, government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels engaged in a new round of deadly fighting in a civil war conflict that has left thousands dead or displaced. Ravi Nessman, the Associated Press bureau chief in Colombo, offers insight on the story.
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MARGARET WARNER: On the northern tip of Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of people are trapped in a tiny strip of land between the Bay of Bengal and an inland lagoon. They’re caught in the crossfire between the Tamil Tigers rebel group occupying the area and the Sri Lankan army.

Some 200,000 civilians have managed to flee the combat zone, but another 50,000 are believed to be still there.

Yesterday, President Obama spoke out for the first time on the crisis. He urged both sides to take steps to end the fighting.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have a humanitarian crisis that’s taking place in Sri Lanka. And I’ve been increasingly saddened by the desperate news in recent days.

Without urgent action, this humanitarian crisis could turn into a catastrophe. Now’s the time, I believe, to put aside some of the political issues that are involved and to put the lives of the men and women and children who are innocently caught in the crossfire, to put them first.

So I urge the Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms and let civilians go. Their forced recruitment of civilians and their use of civilians as human shields is deplorable.

The government should stop the indiscriminate shelling that has taken hundreds of innocent lives, including several hospitals. The government should live up to its commitment to not use heavy weapons in the conflict zone.

MARGARET WARNER: This civil war has been raging for more than 25 years, making it the longest-running war in Asia.

For more, I talked with Ravi Nessman, the Associated Press bureau chief in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo.

Ravi Nessman, thanks for joining us. There are reports that today thousands of civilians escaped from the conflict zone under fire. What can you tell us about that?

RAVI NESSMAN, Associated Press: Well, from what the military’s telling us, nearly 3,000 civilians waded across a lagoon to escape from rebel-controlled territory to government-held territory. They say that, as these civilians were swimming across, they were being shot at by the rebels, and four of them were killed and 14 were injured.

Now, the rebels have denied holding the civilians as human shields, but there have been pretty credible reports and witness reports that said that they’ve shot at civilians trying to flee before.

A humanitarian crisis

MARGARET WARNER: And what's the humanitarian situation for those who are still inside the zone? I know you can't get in there, but what are your sources telling you?

RAVI NESSMAN: Well, the Red Cross today just called the humanitarian situation in the zone, quote, "an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe." We've talked to some doctors in the area who said that they've abandoned the only functioning hospital there because the shelling was so intense that they couldn't stay out of their shelters.

They've been hiding for about 24 hours in bunkers, and they can hear about 400 badly, badly wounded patients inside crying for help, crying out for water and for food.

Now, the Red Cross has sent a boat on the ocean for a third consecutive day trying to bring in food aid and evacuate the wounded, but for the third time, they've had to turn away because the fighting was too intense.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, President Obama spoke out on all this yesterday, as you know. How did the government and the rebels respond when he called for both sides to take steps to protect these civilians?

RAVI NESSMAN: Well, interestingly, both the government and the rebels welcomed his call, but they both seemed to ignore the criticism of their own side.

So the government was very happy that the president called for the rebels to lay down their arms, and the rebels were very happy that he expressed concern about the civilians and called for an end to the shelling. But neither side seemed to acknowledge that he was actually critical of both of them.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the government, I've read, is denying that they're using heavy weapons or engaging in indiscriminate shelling in that zone. What does your reporting tell you is the truth on that?

RAVI NESSMAN: Well, it's a difficult question, because journalists are barred from the war zone and aid workers are barred from the war zone. The government says that it hasn't used heavy weapons in that area for weeks, for over a month.

But we have reports clearly from that area of intense, intense shelling. Earlier, over the weekend, actually, there were reports that shelling was so bad that as many as 1,000 civilians were killed in one day.

And the government initially said that perhaps the rebels were actually shelling themselves, but we haven't heard that explanation in several days. Now they just continue to repeat that they've promised not to use heavy weapons and they're not using them.

Thousands in displacement camps

MARGARET WARNER: What about the couple hundred thousand who have managed to escape? Where have they gone? How are they being taken care of?

RAVI NESSMAN: Well, the nearly 200,000 who have escaped have been put into displacement camps a little bit south of the war zone. And those camps, from what we're told, are completely overwhelmed. The government is trying to get them up and running as quickly as possible, but they were not prepared for those masses of people.

But, again, the media has been essentially barred from those camps. We were taken on a tour of them a few months ago when there were just a few thousand people in them, but the situation, from what aid workers are telling us, is far graver now than it was then.

MARGARET WARNER: This civil war has been going on for a quarter of a century. Who are the Tamil Tigers? What are they fighting for?

RAVI NESSMAN: Well, the Tamil Tigers are a militant group that rose up, actually, in the '70s among -- there were a whole number of militant groups that rose up in northern Sri Lanka at the time.

They are fighting for a separate homeland for this ethnic Tamil minority, which has its base in the northeast of the island. And many, many groups rose up at this time because there had been perceived discrimination against them by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority here.

And since then, though, this group has pioneered, really, the use of suicide bombings and has been listed as a terror group around the world. They've been blamed for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in India and many, many Sri Lankan leaders. So they don't have a lot of sympathy internationally.

MARGARET WARNER: Is this war, would you say, almost over? How does the government see the end game here?

RAVI NESSMAN: Well, the government just says they want to wipe out the Tigers, that this is it, they're taking -- there's no quarter given here.

Their end game, apparently, is going to end -- at least according to them -- with them seizing the Tiger leader or killing the Tiger leader -- his name is Prabhakaran -- and they feel, if they can cut off the head, then that will be sort of the end of the fighting.

MARGARET WARNER: Ravi Nessman of the Associated Press in Colombo, thank you.

RAVI NESSMAN: Oh, no problem.