President Obama on Wednesday urged Sri Lanka to halt "indiscriminate" shelling of civilians trapped with the remnants of the country’s Tamil Tiger rebels and to let humanitarian aid in.
Obama criticized the Tigers for using civilians as “human shields” and urged them to surrender and let civilians go. But he also called on the island’s government to stop using heavy weapons in the conflict zone, which has shrunk to just a few square miles, and allow U.N. and Red Cross workers to reach the nearly 200,000 people displaced by the fighting in the country’s north. “Without urgent action, this humanitarian crisis could turn into a catastrophe,” Obama said. “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.” The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for an independent state for the country’s ethnic Tamil minority since 1983. As many as 70,000 people have been killed since the civil war began, and the Tigers have been declared a terrorist organization by the European Union and more than 30 countries, including the United States. Obama called on the remaining rebels “to lay down their arms and let civilians go.” “Their forced recruitment of civilians and their use of civilians as human shields is deplorable. These tactics will only serve to alienate all those who carry them out,” he said. But he said government troops “should stop the indiscriminate shelling that has taken hundreds of innocent lives” in recent days.
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“Going forward, Sri Lanka must seek a peace that is secure and lasting and grounded in respect for all of its citizens,” Obama said. “More civilian casualties and inadequate care for those caught in resettlement camps will only make it more difficult to achieve the peace that the people of Sri Lanka deserve.” Though the rebels once controlled much of northeastern Sri Lanka, government troops have forced them from all but a small portion of the island since November. Sri Lanka’s government says it has the remainder of the Tamil Tigers pinned down on a narrow peninsula in northern Sri Lanka. But the rebels are among an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 civilians confined to the roughly 4.5-square-kilometer (1.75-square-mile) strip, and U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss told CNN on Monday that hundreds of civilians died during weekend fighting because the Sri Lankan army had put residents in the crossfire. Wednesday, a Red Cross worker was killed by shelling in the conflict zone, the third aid worker killed in six weeks, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.