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UN chief considers visiting Sri Lanka to assess humanitarian crisis
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09:50, May 19, 2009

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United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is considering a visit to Sri Lanka to assess the humanitarian crisis there now that the Sri Lankan government has declared its victory over Tamil rebels, the UN press office said here on Monday.

"The secretary-general is considering a visit there," said UN deputy spokesperson Marie Okabe, without confirming an announcement by Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama that Ban was expected late Friday for a 24-hour visit where he will meet with senior officials.

However, Okabe said that the primary focus of Ban's visit would be on the condition of the civilians in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, their reintegration, and a long-term resolution to the conflict.

On Monday, the Sri Lankan government forces announced its victory over the Tamil Tiger rebel group, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), after it said Tamil rebel leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran had been killed -- a claim that has yet to be confirmed by the United Nations, according to Okabe.

Speaking to reporters on the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka, UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said if Ban travels to Sri Lanka, he might visit the displaced people staying in the IDP camps "to demonstrate his sympathy and solidarity for the people."

It will also be "very important" for him to talk about how "to heal some of the wounds and the legacy of bitterness that may have been left by the (three decades of) fighting," Holmes added.

Senior UN official VJ Nambiar is currently engaged in consultations with government officials on how best to respond to the thousands of displaced civilians staying in government controlled camps, which Holmes called "a major humanitarian challenge."

Approximately 220,000 people are currently living in the IDP camps, including an extra 20,000 civilians which arrived over the weekend. On top of that, another 40,000 to 60,000 people are on their way to the camps, and in particular, to the major camp in Vavuniya, said Holmes.

With so many people arriving in such a short period of time, the UN and humanitarian aid agencies are struggling to quickly provide adequate shelter, food and medicine. This month, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund allocated just over 11 million U.S. dollars to deal with the humanitarian response, said Holmes.

The conditions of the camps are "not ideal," nor are they "up to international standards," said Holmes. In particular, the IDP camp in Vavuniya is "very large" causing issues of "overcrowding."

In the conflict zone, the government has said all civilians have fled the area but that cannot be verified as the government continues to prevent the United Nations or journalists from entering the area, Holmes said, adding that if access was granted it would be "very valuable."

Over the weekend, the International Red Cross, said the country's northeast was an "unimaginable humanitarian disaster." It has been unable to bring in food or remove the wounded and sick from the area of fighting and still does not have access to the area, said Holmes.

However, the Sri Lankan government has taken hundreds of injured civilians leaving the conflict zone to different hospitals around the country, added Holmes.

Now that fighting has ceased, questions of resettlement and the long-term reconciliation between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority will be a critical issue for the United Nations to watch closely, said Holmes. Once the resettlement process begins, the government has promised it will not change the ethnic makeup of the North, where Tamils lived before the government offensive.

The Sri Lankan government has said 80 percent of the displaced civilians will be resettled by the end of 2009 -- "an ambitious target," noted Holmes. But before that happens, the government must reconstruct destroyed housing and infrastructure, and minefields must be cleared. Holmes said the United Nations would provide assistance and funding for both these things as long as the government meets certain conditions.


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