MSF Urges Respect for Safety of Civilians Caught in Sri Lanka Fighting

Colombo/ New York, May 16, 2000 — The emergency medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) today expressed grave concern for the safety and medical care of the civilian population in Sri Lanka as a result of increased fighting in the Jaffna peninsula and vicinity. Recent attacks have resulted in civilian casualties. The location of potential military targets next to health facilities further endangers the patients and health personnel and may restrict the civilian population's access to medical care. The free movement of civilians away from military combat areas should be granted by all parties. The refusal to allow Doctors Without Borders and the Ministry of Health to bring in sufficient medical supplies into the Wanni and Jaffna has made treatment of such casualties especially difficult.

One of the military bases in Jaffna is located inside an old hospital compound, and the outside limit of the military base is fewer than 15 meters from the pediatric ward of Jaffna Teaching Hospital. Soldiers regularly go through the hospital on their way out of the military base. Other military installations on the peninsula are located near displaced persons camps, schools, health facilities, and other places of civilian use.

Since the night of May 9, a 24-hour curfew has been declared in Jaffna and Chavakachcheri municipalities, although it has been lifted some days between 9:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. From May 9 to 14, Jaffna Teaching Hospital could not function for lack of nursing and attendant staff. Only the doctors had passes to go to the hospital. On May 14, 60 to 70 passes were issued for health personnel to return to work in the hospital. Although Jaffna Teaching Hospital is now operational again, the staff is still insufficient to provide minimum emergency care to the population of Jaffna.

On the afternoon of May 12, jets bombed the fishing village of Pallikuda, near Pooneryn. Five members of one family died immediately, including two children aged three months and two years. Doctors at Mallavi Hospital provided treatment for 11 other victims of the bombing, including 4 who required life-saving operations. Three were children, one of whom, age seven years, lost an arm. Further treatment was hindered by a critical shortage of medical supplies, especially emergency surgical items, dressing materials, and antibiotics. Five patients needing post-operative care were transferred to Vavuniya hospital, a difficult journey that takes at least six hours.

"On the morning of May 13, a boat with 5 fishermen was gunned in a known fishing spot south of Silivaturai (Mannar District) by a Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) patrol. As the 5 fishermen were recovered by the villagers, the patrol of SLN approached the village coast and fired at the village for approximately 30 minutes," villagers said. Three people on the boat (ages 72, 54, and 47) were brought to Murunkan Hospital and later transferred to Vavuniya and Mannar Hospitals for surgery.

On the afternoon of May 15, three to four shells landed in Columbuthurai West killing five people and injuring six. On May 14 and 15, it was reported that groups of civilians who wanted to leave Jaffna town were prevented from doing so at military checkpoints.

Both parties have made appeals on several occasions for civilians to move out of possible target areas: the LTTE for parts of Jaffna and the Sri Lankan Army for major towns in the Wanni (May 15). Warning civilians of military operations does not take away the responsibility for their safety. International humanitarian law prohibits parties to an armed conflict from indiscriminately attacking the civilian population. It clearly forbids putting civilians in danger by using their presence to shield military objectives from attacks. It also clearly provides for the duty to care for wounded and sick and to allow medical assistance to those in need.

Doctors Without Borders strongly urges both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to respect humanitarian laws, especially those protecting the safety of the civilian population. It also calls upon the Sri Lankan government to permit the passage of adequate medical supplies into the region, to allow emergency civilian treatment to continue at hospitals in rebel-controlled areas and to expedite the transport of these supplies without further delay. Since March, the transportation of medical supplies has been severely restricted by security forces. Over the last weeks, more than 40 patients have had to be transferred or discharged without adequate surgical treatment and more than 3,700 out-patients have been sent home without medication.

MSF teams in Sri Lanka include 46 international and 140 Sri Lankan staff.