Sri Lanka: UN Security Council Makes Its First Move

UNITED NATIONS - The U.N. Security Council finally spoke out on the tragedy in Sri Lanka, telling the government to stop firing heavy artillery at civilians in a war zone and the Tamil Tiger rebels to "lay down their arms" and allow non-combatants to leave the conflict area.

But the statement, endorsed by all 15 member nations on Wednesday, was issued to the press rather than at a formal meeting or in a legal document. Still the action, the body's first response to the bloody conflict, was considered by its main sponsors - Britain, France and Austria, backed by the United States - as putting public pressure on Sri Lanka.

Said Britain's U.N. Ambassador John Sawers: "This is an important step forward by the Security Council....We have for the first time produced an official written statement by the council addressing the worsening humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka."

The move came in response to the largest report attack on civilians over the weekend, called a "bloodbath" by a U.N. spokesman. Hundreds were reported killed after government troops attacked a narrow strip of northeast beach territory in an effort to surround the rebels. Some 50,000 civilians are believed trapped in what was once a "no-fire zone." U.N. figures last month estimated that more than 6,400 civilians had been killed in three months of fighting this year, many used as human shields by the Tamil Tigers who have not let them leave the zone.

President Obama in Washington also spoke out forcefully , telling reporters: "Tens of thousands of innocent civilians are trapped between the warring government forces and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka with no means of escape, little access to food, water, shelter and medicine," he said. "Without urgent action, this humanitarian crisis could turn into a catastrophe."

He urged the Tamil Tigers to halt warfare and release civilians and said the government should stop using heavy weapons, stop "indiscriminate shelling" and allow international aid groups access to refugees in camps, some reported in deplorable condition.

Russia, China, Libya and Vietnam had opposed putting the issue on the agenda of the Security Council, the U.N.'s most powerful body, considering the war an internal matter rather than a threat to international peace and security. But they relented in issuing a statement after the Western council members agreed to discuss a U.N. report on Israel's war in January in Gaza that the United States and its allies did not want raised, diplomats said. The council issued a brief press statement, shorter than the one on Sri Lanka, expressing concern about the report's findings, which were critical of Israel.

The Council's Sri Lanka statement "strongly" condemned the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) "for its acts of terrorism over many years and for its continued use of civilians as human shields." It acknowledged the "legitimate right of the Government of Sri Lanka to combat terrorism" and demanded the LTTE lay down its arms and allow "tens of thousands" of civilians in the conflict zone to leave.

It said the Sri Lankan government should "fulfill its commitment" in regard to reports "of continued use of heavy caliber weapons in areas with high concentrations of civilians." The Council also called on the government to allow "urgent delivery of humanitarian assistance" and to cooperate with aid groups, such as the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Colombo government has said it stopped using heavy artillery in that area almost three weeks ago. But there have been steady reports from the region of indiscriminate artillery raids by government forces, including attacks on makeshift hospitals.

The description of a "bloodbath" came on Monday from the U.N. spokesman in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss: "The U.N. has consistently warned against the bloodbath scenario as we've watched the steady increase in civilian deaths over the last few months. The large-scale killing of civilians over the weekend including the deaths of more than 100 children, shows that that bloodbath as become a reality."

Sri Lanka, a former British colony, has been wracked by violent conflict for most of the past 25 years, suffering more than 100,000 deaths in fighting between the separatist Tamil Tigers, who traditionally lived in the northern and eastern regions, and Sinhalese, who inhabit the central and southern regions. A peace process began in 2002 but talks broke down and a ceasefire agreement crumbled in 2006 when full-scale military action resumed. The fighting escalated in 2008, with the government having won nearly all the territory in the Northern Province.