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Civilian toll rises, 40,000 trapped in Sri Lanka

B. Muralidhar Reddy

Aid agencies appeal for humanitarian corridor

COLOMBO: The death toll of civilians caught in the gun battle between the military and the LTTE in and around the Muslim dominated Muttur town has crossed 40 on Friday and an estimated 40,000 persons trapped in the area.

Alarmed at the enveloping humanitarian crisis, major aid agencies here appealed for a "humanitarian corridor" to ensure safe passage of civilians, aid workers and relief items to ease the suffering of the people under siege.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) is engaged in hectic parleys with the Government, Tamil Tigers and the diplomatic community here for a 48-hour ceasefire to enable safe passage for civilians and rush in emergency relief for those who have taken shelter in educational institutions and places of worship.

However, there was no word about cessation of fighting. According to the SLMC, at least five refugees who were fleeing were killed when a shell fell near them.

The Norwegian Special Envoy, Hanssen-Bauer who flew in from Oslo, called on Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. He would be in Kilinochchi, the administrative headquarters of the LTTE, on Saturday.

Though the Government has repeatedly maintained that it is ready for dialogue with the LTTE if the later lifted the waterway blockade, diplomatic observers wonder if it is a bit late to solve the immediate crisis.

The nature of crisis particularly after the Muttur showdown was evident in the desperate plea by aid agencies here. At a hurriedly convened news conference here, SLMC chief Rauf Hakeem alleged that the civilian casualties in the last three days had been caused by shelling and artillery fire emanating from the areas under the control of the Army. He also accused the LTTE of detaining hundreds of fleeing citizens and urged their immediate release.

The comments drew an angry response from the Army Headquarters, which said the observations were immature and baseless.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has expressed concern for the welfare of civilians caught up in the crossfire, while Sri Lanka's peace mediator Norway has pledged $1.5 million to help affected locals.

Sri Lanka on Thursday urged the three European Union (E.U.) member countries — Finland, Denmark and Sweden — to continue their work in the SLMM at least in the Government controlled territory.

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