Aid workers accused Sri Lanka yesterday of causing an avoidable humanitarian disaster as the country's Government appealed for international help in handling 100,000 civilians who have fled the conflict with the Tamil Tigers since Monday.
The Government had maintained for weeks that there were fewer than 50,000 civilians in the area where the army has pinned down the last of the Tigers.
It insisted that UN and Red Cross estimates of 100,000 to 150,000 civilians in the zone were exaggerated - and prepared internment camps to screen non-combatants based on its own figures.
The army now says that it has rescued 103,000 civilians from the area since Monday - on top of 70,000 already in the camps - and estimates that there are up to 20,000 still inside the zone.
The result, according to the UN, is that more than 100,000 desperate people - many of them injured and traumatised - are now heading for camps that are severely overcrowded and running short of supplies. Even the Government concedes that a humanitarian emergency is unfolding. "Overcrowding was a problem before the exodus," Gordon Weiss, the UN spokesman in Colombo, the capital, said. "The existing sites are going to be overwhelmed in the coming days."
Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, ordered the immediate dispatch of a humanitarian team to the area last night and urged the Government to co-operate with it. "Too many lives are at stake," he said.
The Government has blocked all aid agencies from helping the civilians until they are in the camps, but is struggling to provide them even with food and water, according to aid workers. "People are keeling over from hunger," said one.
Tony Senewiratne, the local head of Habitat for Humanity, an international NGO, said that existing camps were not nearly sufficient to house so many people during a screening process that would take months, if not years.
"The influx of people is going to create a humungous humanitarian problem," said Mr Senewiratne, who is Sinhalese. "We aren't ready to meet the basic needs of the people, and the Government is depending on the international community jumping in."
Rohitha Bogollagama, the Foreign Minister, described the situation as "less than ideal" and appealed for assistance in providing shelter, clean water and toilets. "With the influx of large numbers of people in such a short period of time, obviously we do face an emergency humanitarian situation," he said.