September 12, 2008

Following a directive from the government of Sri Lanka earlier this week, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) withdrew its staff yesterday from Kilinochchi town, in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-controlled Vanni area. MSF is very concerned about the possible consequences of ongoing hostilities for the people still living in the area, and the impact of displacement on the health of the population. MSF urges both parties to the conflict to ensure that all possible measures are taken to protect civilians from the impact of the conflict, and to allow assistance to resume as soon as possible.

In recent months, the Sri Lankan Army has undertaken a major offensive against the LTTE in the north, leading tens of thousands of people to flee to the northeast of the Vanni, the area controlled by the LTTE. Although the government of Sri Lanka has dropped leaflets recommending that the population move from this area, and though they have announced the creation of a humanitarian corridor to facilitate this, there is little evidence that civilians have been able to move to safety.

Apart from potential exposure to shelling and bombardment, those who have been forced to leave their homes lack adequate shelter, sanitation facilities, and access to clean drinking water. The potentially serious health impact will only be worsened by the arrival of the rainy season, which begins in roughly a month’s time. Existing hospitals and clinics have also been affected by the fighting, and though the system is compensating for the moment, if the situation is prolonged, there will be serious shortages of medicines and supplies, as well as qualified medical staff.

MSF is prepared to return to Kilinochchi as soon as possible. In the interim, the withdrawal should not affect programs in other parts of Sri Lanka’s conflict-affected north, including Vavuniya, Point Pedro in the Jaffna peninsula, and Mannar.