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'Don't worry, Kuwait is not Iraq'
Government assures thousands of family members here
By Nilika Kasturisinghe

People crowd a departure ticket counter at Kuwait International Airport trying desperately to leave Kuwait City after another day of air raid sirens sounded all over the city on March 21 as US-led forces moved into Iraq. AFP

As US- led forces continue their blistering attack on Iraq, there was growing concern here over the plight of about 170,000 Sri Lankans working in Kuwait especially since most international flights from there have been cancelled. But there were repeated assurances from authorities in Colombo that they were closely monitoring the situation.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Gamini Kariyawasam said reports indicated Sri Lankans were heading towards safe camps located in different parts of Kuwait on Friday. He said some Kuwaiti families were reportedly leaving to Saudi Arabia taking their Sri Lankan housemaids along with them.

Meanwhile Foreign Minister Tyronne Fernando said he believed there was no need for evacuation right now, and there had been no requests from Sri lankans in Kuwait but the government was prepared with an emergency plan if the need arose. Foreign Employment Welfare Minister, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena said, the Sri Lankan mission in Kuwait had formed an emergency team comprising seven embassy officers and more than 60 others representing Lankans from various parts of Kuwait.

He said the safety camps set up with aid from the Red Cross and UN agencies would provide basic shelter, food and health care while plans were also in place to move the Lankans to safer buildings if the situation worsened. He said Sri Lankans in Kuwait had been kept fully informed of the developments through Sirasa and TV Lanka. Every household with a Sri Lankan had been given a leaflet in Sinhala briefing them on what to do when the war erupted.

Mr. Abeywardene said Ministry was receiving full reports every six hours from its mission in Kuwait. "Our people are in no hurry to return. Don't look at Kuwait the way you look at Iraq," Minister Abeywardena told concerned family members here. "Every six hours the water and food is checked for chemicals."

"If the war continues we might need some repatriation and we will work it out with the Kuwaiti and SriLankan Airlines. Don't worry the Saudi boarder is still opened and Lankans could move out that way," he assured.

The Minister said three months ago there were about 300 Sri Lankans in Iraq but as the crisis grew only 27 were left and all but one of them flew out when the war began. He said the only Lankan who remained was married to an Iraqi and preferred to remain in that country.

Sri Lanka's Ambassador to Iraq M.M. Amunul Farouque also left Iraq and is watching the situation from the Jordanian capital of Amman. Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau (SLBFE) Chairman Susantha Fernando said, a 24 hour information centre had been set up at the SLBFE with three top officers in charge. They could be contacted on telephone Nos. 598211 and 592353.

As the war broke out in Iraq on Thursday emergency meetings of senior officials of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Foreign Employment Welfare Ministry and Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment took place in the parliamentary premises.

The SLBFE was instructed to appoint a representative at every GA's office so that the families of those working in Kuwait would not have to travel all the way to Colombo to obtain information.

SLBFE Additional General Manager Wijegunawardena said by Saturday morning more than four hundred inquiries had been made by callers and visitors.
Despite the assurances and reassurances Sri Lankans here were terribly worried about family members in Kuwait and some were even seen waiting at the Katunayake airport.

"My mother was to arrive on the Kuwaiti Airways flight, but they say the flight will not come today," said P. Niranjala who was among those waiting in hope. The turmoil and confusion affected even flights to other areas. The Civil Aviation Chief said passengers going to Europe or other areas could get information from officials on how to avoid conflict zones.

SriLankan Airlines Communications Chief Chandana de Silva on Friday said, flights to Dubai were continuing and any evacuation from Kuwait would be considered when the need arose. SriLankan Airlines normally had five flights a week to Kuwait and airline sources said the suspension would be a big financial loss.

Emirates Airline’s Maurice Flanagan, said they were avoiding hot spots. Earlier they were operating flights from Kuwait via Dubai to Colombo seven days a week.
Meanwhile, IDD callers to Kuwait said they were hampered by circuits being inaccessible. An SLT official said the lines were clogged on Thursday and Friday.
As the war began Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told the Treasury to allocate Rs. 50 million to finance any emergency measures for Sri Lankans in the Guld region.

However the main opposition People’s Alliance was not satisfied. Spokesman Sarath Amunugama charged that the government had mismanaged the crisis while the Ambassador in Baghdad had run away. He said the government should have taken all measures to evacuate the Sri lankans from Kuwait but the Ministry did not seem to have even proper figures.

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