BBC News – 2009-01-30 21:22:19
Fears over Sri Lanka War Children
(January 30, 2009) — A growing number of children have been killed or injured in Sri Lankan fighting over the last 10 days, the UN children’s agency (Unicef) says. It has called on the government and Tamil Tiger rebels to give “absolute priority” to the safety of children and the wider civilian population.
The Tamil Tigers say 250,000 civilians in the conflict zone want to stay in rebel-held areas for protection. However the government has appealed to the Tigers to allow them to leave. It has offered safe passage to the civilians, but President Mahinda Rajapaksa has ruled out a ceasefire as his forces continue to attack dwindling rebel territory.
Rebel political chief B. Nadesan told the BBC that Tamils “do not wish to end up in the hands of their killers. “They believe their security lies in the area under the control of our organisation – and regard the area under our control as their safe haven,” he said. Health officials and human rights groups say hundreds of civilians have died.
‘Caught in Crossfire’
Unicef said the safety of children – some just months old – and the wider civilian population was of paramount importance.
“We have clear evidence that children are being caught in the crossfire, and that children are being injured and killed,” Unicef Regional Director for South Asia, Daniel Toole, said. “It is crucial that safe areas, schools and medical facilities are protected and considered zones of peace, in all circumstances.
“Children are bearing the brunt of a conflict which is not theirs. We are gravely concerned for the tens of thousands of children who are trapped in a fast shrinking area of intense conflict.” But Sri Lanka’s defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapakse, said the numbers were exaggerated and aid agencies were panicking.
Meanwhile, the UK has announced it is doubling its emergency humanitarian aid to try to protect civilians.
President Rajapaksa said that the rebels were refusing to let the civilians leave. “I urge the [Tamil Tigers], within the next 48 hours to allow free movement of civilians to ensure their safety and security. For all those civilians, I assure a safe passage to a secure environment,” he said in a statement on Thursday.
The European Union on Friday called for a halt to the conflict. EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel said: “This is an escalating humanitarian catastrophe. We are extremely worried about the terrible situation facing people trapped in the fighting.” But the Sri Lankan government has said it will continue “to liberate areas which have not been liberated so far”.
Our correspondent says that displaced civilians who do manage to leave the war zone are held in government-managed camps to which there is no media access. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has also said she is extremely concerned about the well-being of people caught up in the fighting.
She said the situation could be worse than generally realised because of the restrictions on access to the war zone. Ms Pillay said there appeared to be “very grave breaches of human rights by both sides in the conflict and it is imperative that we find out more about what exactly has been going on”.
On Friday, the Reporters without Borders group also appealed to President Rajapaksa to allow local and foreign journalists to report freely. The Red Cross says the humanitarian situation in the north-east “remains precarious for thousands”.
“Stocks have been depleted and sustainable ways of producing food locally have become almost nonexistent,” it said.
The UK has said it is doubling its emergency humanitarian aid with another £2.5m to support Red Cross operations and help maintain relief convoys.
On Thursday, aid agencies said they had evacuated hundreds of wounded civilians, including 50 critically ill children, to a hospital in the town of Vavuniya.
The military says it is involved in a final push against the retreating rebels. It has captured the key towns of Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and the strategically important Elephant Pass in recent weeks.
The BBC’s Ethirajan Anbarasan is at Elephant Pass with the army. He says he can hear artillery fire 15km (nine miles) to the south and has been told there is heavy fighting there.
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Witness ‘Trained Child Soldiers’
(January 30, 2009) — The International Criminal Court in The Hague has heard from a man who says he trained children to use Kalashnikovs for DR Congo warlord Thomas Lubanga.
The unnamed former militia fighter was giving evidence at Mr Lubanga’s trial for war crimes allegedly committed during the five-year civil conflict. He said Mr Lubanga had told child recruits in his camp: “Do not be afraid. The war will not be difficult.”
Mr Lubanga denies using hundreds of child soldiers during the war. His trial opened on Monday after a seven-month delay, as judges and prosecutors disputed confidential evidence. He is the first person to be tried at the ICC.
‘Fighting and dying’
Taking the stand on Friday, the unnamed former fighter said he had joined Mr Lubanga’s militia, the Union of Congolese Patriots, in 2002 after militia commanders threatened to burn his village if the young people did not join its ranks. He said that children had been among the group that went with them to a training camp.
The militia made him an instructor since he had already served in the DR Congolese army, in which he had served seven months as a child soldier in 1997, at the age of 13. He taught children to shoot and the basics of combat, he said.
Underage children were often assigned to officers as armed “bodyguards or escorts”, he said. “Children were deployed in companies, battalions, brigades and platoons. They were like soldiers.”
Eventually, the witness added, he saw children fighting and dying in several battles. “If the commander gave the order, everyone had to fire, even the children,” he testified.
The first witness at the trial retracted his testimony after first saying he had been recruited by Mr Lubanga’s fighters on his way home from school. The prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, asked for an investigation into whether the witness, who was also unidentified, feared for his personal safety after the trial.
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