Sri Lanka’s terrible conflict

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It is remarkable how little attention the war in Sri Lanka is getting. Londoners are probably dimly aware that something is going on, because of the big Tamil demonstrations that have been taking place outside Parliament. The serious papers, like the FT, are running reports on the inside pages.

But the suffering and carnage being caused, as the Sri Lankan government presses for a final victory over the Tamil Tigers, is remarkable and disturbing. The estimates I have heard are 6,500 civilian deaths; over 100,000 refugees and 50,000 civilians trapped in a four-square mile patch of land, on Sri Lanka’s north-east coast. As one British official put it to me today – “It makes what happened in Gaza look like a sideshow.”

In fact, a lot of the accusations flying around on both sides are reminiscent of Gaza: the government accuses the Tamil rebels of using civilians as “human shields”; the rebels accuse the government of trying to starve a civilian population into submission; the international press are kept impotently outside the conflict zone.

International diplomacy is finally cranking into action. John Holmes, the UN’s co-ordinator for humanitarian affairs, arrived over the weekend. David Miliband, Bernard Kouchner and Carl Bildt- the British, French and Swedish foreign secretaries – are due to arrive on a joint visit later this week. They fear that the Sri Lankan government is intent on a purely military solution and they may try to persuade the authorities in Colombo to be magnanimous in victory, by starting an inclusive political process aimed at national reconciliation. But I wouldn’t hold out much hope. Sri Lankan government ministers are exulting that the “LTTE is down on its knees.” They sound in no mood for mercy, or reconciliation.

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