April 24, 2009 / 4:30 PM / 10 years ago

UNHCR starting emergency airlift of relief to Sri Lanka

* UNHCR starting airlift of tents, supplies to Sri Lanka

* ICRC says tens of thousands lack access to medical care

* UNICEF warns risks growing for children in crossfire

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, April 24 (Reuters) - The United Nations refugee agency said on Friday that it was starting an emergency airlift of tents and other supplies to Sri Lanka, where tens of thousands of people have fled fighting in the northeast.

The airlift, which could begin as early as this weekend, will carry 5,000 tents suitable for families and other items from the agency’s stockpile in Dubai to the capital Colombo.

“The decision follows a dramatic escalation in fighting between government forces and Tamil rebels in recent days as the government attempts to flush out the remaining rebel stronghold,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement.

Indian envoys met Sri Lanka’s president on Friday after New Delhi demanded a truce in the closing phase of a 25-year war against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam which U.N. data says may have killed almost 6,500 people in the last three months.

The Sri Lankan military said more than 108,000 people had poured out of the dwindling rebel-held area since Monday.

The tents will be used to shelter families who have fled the conflict zone now gathered in some 38 camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) around the towns of Vavuniya, Jaffna and Trincomalee, the UNHCR said.

“Overcrowding at the camps is becoming a major worry...Many IDPs in the camps have no shelter from the sweltering heat.”

The Geneva-based agency urged the government to allocate more land to build emergency shelter and water and sanitation infrastructure and make public buildings available for shelter.

“Aid workers also cite growing problems of malnourishment, lack of transport to move the sick to hospitals and a shortage of medical personnel,” it said. “Some of the displaced have not eaten for days.”

SITUATION CATASTROPHIC

The International Committee of the Red Cross said that the situation in northeastern Sri Lanka remained “catastrophic”.

“Several tens of thousands of people are still trapped in the conflict area with very little access to medical care, food and water. Sanitation is deplorable,” ICRC spokesman Simon Schorno told a news briefing in Geneva.

The ICRC managed to evacuate 900 wounded and sick people since Monday and plans to evacuate another 300-400 people.

Sri Lankan authorities were preventing the neutral humanitarian agency from bringing life-saving surgical and medical supplies into the conflict zone, the spokesman said.

“The couple of doctors still operating within the conflict zone work with absolutely nothing. They have no blood supplies, no antibiotics and a very limited amount of bandages,” he said.

“We are continuing to negotiate this delivery of medical material in the zone with the authorities but with no success for the moment,” Schorno added.

UNICEF spokeswoman Veronique Taveau warned that risks were growing for civilians, especially children, caught in the crossfire. “The risk of seeing more and more children killed is considerable and unacceptable,” she told reporters in Geneva. (Editing by Diana Abdallah)

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