The Web Sri Lanka In Focus

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Sri Lanka: UNHCR commends government after boat people rescue

UNHCR is deeply concerned about the plight of 71 boat people who were rescued by the Sri Lankan Navy yesterday, after they were found adrift in high seas off the island's northern district of Mullaitivu. The boat, carrying 50 Myanmar nationals and 21 Bangladesh nationals, had engine failure and been adrift since 20 February. Twenty of those on board, including 17 Myanmar nationals and three Bangladeshis, reportedly died due to starvation and dehydration.

The boat and its victims have been taken to Sri Lanka's eastern Trincomalee harbour and are currently being attended to at the naval base there. UNHCR commends the Sri Lankan government for rescuing the boat and its passengers and bringing them ashore. We also commend the government for its commitment to international obligations in allowing the survivors to disembark and providing them with necessary medical relief.

UNHCR is in close contact with both high-level and government officials and is awaiting unhindered access to the people in question, once they are moved out of the restricted military zone where the naval base is situated and to a police- and civilian-administered area.

The phenomenon of people taking to the seas in search of safety, refuge, or simply better economic conditions is not new. Since the vessels used are often overcrowded and unseaworthy, rescue-at-sea, disembarkation and processing of those rescued has re-emerged as an important but difficult issue.

Aiding those in peril at sea is one of the oldest of maritime obligations. The legal framework governing rescue-at-sea and the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees rests on the applicable provisions of international maritime law, in interaction with international refugee law and aspects of international human rights law. UNHCR places emphasis on safety aspects, providing technical advice and assistance to states to ensure that they respect their obligations.


Military ties with India good: Sri Lankan Army Chief

Visiting Sri Lankan Army Chief, Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, who is on a six-day visit to India to strengthen military ties between the two countries, today said both countries enjoy a sound military relationship.

"Militarily we have very good relationships for long time and we hope to continue relationships that we are having right now. We are very happy with that," Lt General Fonseka told media persons after being presented a Guard of Honour outside the Defense Ministry. Defence Ministry officials had earlier said that India would like to ensure that the Lankan Army retains its edge over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to enable the Sri Lanka Government to come out with a devolution package acceptable to the Tamil minority in that country.

Lt. Gen. Fonseka, who is accompanied by Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, pledged to defeat the LTTE at the earliest.

The Lankan Army is presently engaged in intense battles against the LTTE in northern Sri Lanka.

According to sources, the Sri Lankan Government expects help from the international community to contain the rebel group.

The visit by the Sri Lankan Army Chief comes in the wake of the island nation increasingly looking at China and Pakistan for weapons supply in the face of India's reluctance to provide it with sophisticated arms.


Lanka military: Soldiers capture small rebel territory as fighting kills 7 rebels

Government troops backed by artillery and mortar fire attacked Tamil separatists guarding a front line in northern Sri Lanka, killing seven rebels on Tuesday and capturing a small piece of territory, the military said.

Troops seized about a square kilometer (0.39 square miles) of land in the Mannar district during an early morning battle that lasted one hour, said Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, the military spokesman. Nearby troops captured a rebel post and advanced about one kilometer (more than half a mile) in a separate battle, he said without giving details.

The significance of the territory seized was unclear and rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan did not answer calls seeking comment.

Also Tuesday, fighter jets pounded a rebel artillery gun position and an underground ammunition depot in the northern rebel-held Pooneryn area, said Air force spokesman Wing Commander Andy Wijesuriya.

He did not give details of casualties and damages, but said the bombing caused ``extensive damage'' to the rebels.

In scattered fighting along the front lines Monday, government soldiers killed 14 rebels, the military said Tuesday.

The government has said it aimed to capture the Tamil Tiger rebels' de facto state in the north and crush the group by the end of the year, but diplomats and other observers said the army was facing far more resistance than it had expected.

It was not possible to independently verify reports of the fighting because the government has restricted access to the northern jungles where the fighting was taking place. Both sides routinely exaggerate their opponents' casualty figures while underreporting their own.

The military said soldiers have driven deep into rebel territory in recent months and pushed the front lines back from three to 20 kilometers (two to 12 miles) in different areas. Fighting, which has escalated over the past two years, further flared since the government announced in January it was pulling out of a tattered cease-fire.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state in the north and east for the country's ethnic Tamil minority after decades of being marginalized by Sinhalese-dominated governments. The fighting has killed more than 70,000 people.