Sri Lanka: Military Conflict vs. Propaganda War?

government, which has come under heavy fire for the massive
humanitarian crisis in the country's war zone, is winning the
25-year-old military conflict but is on the verge of losing the
propaganda war overseas.

"It is a very stressful time here,"
says Sri Lanka's Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona, a former chief of
the U.N. Treaty Section.

Although the military has scored unbelievable gains, he said, the last
ditch effort by the rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
(LTTE), is painful.

In an interview with IPS, Kohona said: "The LTTE is trying to
save its neck by surrounding itself with reluctant civilians - 'lambs
to the slaughter' - and throwing Kalashnikov-armed children and old
people against the army."

"People are getting killed. But not in the numbers highlighted by the LTTE propaganda machine," he added.

During the past few weeks, LTTE supporters overseas have
organised huge demonstrations in Western Europe, Canada and the United
States accusing the government of war crimes.

Human rights groups have strongly criticised both sides, and
urged the government to permit access to U.N. humanitarian teams trying
to reach the besieged civilians.

Walter Kalin, the U.N. representative for the Human Rights of
Displaced Persons, said Friday that at least 50,000 people are still
trapped in the conflict zone and they are "exposed to great danger and
without access to sufficient humanitarian access."

They are caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan military forces and the LTTE, which is using them as human shields.

"The separatist LTTE is preventing civilians from leaving the
area and placing military installations close to them, while the
government has been using heavy weapons such as mortars in the conflict
zone in recent days," Kalin said.

Asked whether Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon plans to respond
to the Sri Lankan invitation to visit the war zone, U.N. deputy
spokesperson Marie Okabe told reporters: "The secretary-general is
seriously concerned about the well-being of the people on the ground,
and he is seriously considering such an invitation, if it's going to
save lives on the ground."

Meanwhile, the secretary-general has sent his Chief of Staff
Vijay Nambiar to Sri Lanka - the second time in less than four weeks -
to assess the ground situation and report back.

After a closed door meeting of the Security Council Wednesday,
the Council president, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin of Russia, issued a
press statement, approved by all 15 members, expressing "grave concern
over the worsening humanitarian crisis in north-east Sri Lanka."

The members "strongly condemned" the LTTE for its acts of
terrorism over many years and for its continued use of civilians as
human shields.

While acknowledging the legitimate right of the government of
Sri Lanka to combat terrorism, the statement expressed "deep concern"
at reports of continued use of heavy calibre weapons by government

Asked about the negative reports coming out of the war zone,
Kohona told IPS: "I am surprised that the international media and
certain national leaders, who do not seem to share the agony of Baghdad
and the Swat Valley, have swallowed the LTTE propaganda hook line and

"I have been assured from the highest levels that the Sri Lankan army does not use heavy weapons and aerial bombs," he said.

He also said the government has "intercepted LTTE messages to
the Tamil diaspora asking it to keep up the propaganda blitz because
liberal minded Western countries will be forced to intervene".

Unfortunately, he said, "the diaspora which has invested much
in the Eelam illusion (of a separate state for the minority Tamils in
Sri Lanka) will maintain the rage until the end, and the hostages will
be forced to pay the price with their lives - just as other people's
children were recruited to die in mosquito-infested jungles while the
diaspora wrote out cheques every month to salvage its conscience and
placate the ghosts of 1983 (the year of ethnic riots in Sri Lanka)."

Asked about the proposal for a safe passage to the LTTE
leadership in order to save civilian lives, Kohona said: "A suggestion
has been made that the families of the leadership will be given safe
passage, if they surrender."

Responding to widespread criticism that humanitarian organisations and
the international media are being shut out of the war zone, the
government has relented.

According to Kohona, about 52 international organisations and
non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are operating in the camps
housing internally displaced persons (IDPs).

"I have been to the camps and hospitals three times," he said, pointing
out that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are present at Omanthai,
the screening centre, when IDPs arrive in government controlled areas.

"The ICRC takes food and medicines to the LTTE enclave every three
days. We actually feed the cadres who are fighting us," he said.

Asked about access to the media, he said that so far, 114 media groups have been given access to the camps and the front line.

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