UN holds pullout as civilians protest

  • International diplomatic crisis over Wanni situation
By Chris Kamalendran

UN agencies and International Non Governmental Organisations (INGOs) have temporarily halted the withdrawal of their staff from the strife-torn Wanni region following protests from civilians for the second consecutive day yesterday.

The move came after thousands of placard-carrying men, women and children staged a strong protest opposite UN and INGO offices on Friday and yesterday in Kilinochchi, urging them not to withdraw from the region.

Beer crates were among the items the INGOs packed into lorries following the Defence Ministry order to leave Wanni

UN’s Colombo office spokesman Gordon Weiss said the withdrawal of staff had been suspended and they were awaiting instructions from UN Headquarters in New York. “We have discussed the current situation with the Sri Lankan government and kept it informed about our position. The Government is fully aware of the situation. We had previously agreed on the government directive to pull out,” he said.

The move means UN agencies will not leave the Wanni in terms of an order by the Ministry of Defence. The Defence Secretary had informed all international NGOs in the Wanni to withdraw with immediate effect and remove all assets – vehicles, machinery and equipment – and all employees who are not permanent residents in the Wanni.

Mr. Weiss said the civilians were told their concerns would be conveyed to UN Headquarters and this had been done.

Dr. T. Sathyamoorthy, Director Provincial Health Services, speaking on telephone from Kilinochchi told The Sunday Times that the pullout of the local and foreign staff from the uncleared areas was suspended after they assured the people they will consider their protests and have further consultations with their respective agencies.

INGO representatives also confirmed that they had suspended the withdrawal. A spokesman for CARE
said that one expatriate and 60 staff due to pullout were staying back until a final decision was reached.
In a related development, the Government summoned a meeting with 13 local and foreign NGOs to lay down further conditions on the withdrawal of the local staff and handing over equipment and balance food stocks.

The meeting was presided over by Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa and attended by Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga, Chief of Defense Staff Donald Perera and Essential Services Commissioner General of, S.B. Divaratna.

The government provided three options regarding local staff attached to local and foreign NGOs. They were: to completely vacate the uncleared areas, to remain in Wanni and serve as volunteers assisting the Government Agents in relief work or to terminate their services.

Another condition was that all heavy equipment should be moved out from the Wanni. They include earth moving machines, bulldozers, heavy loaders and tractors used in various projects. They were directed to hand over all balance stocks of food and remaining items to Kilinochchi Government Agent N. Vedanayagam.

After the Government’s directive on Monday, UN agencies and local and International NGOs decided to relocate their staff, but the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) said it would continue to maintain its presence in the uncleared areas. The ICRC said its staff would be stationed in the uncleared areas of Kilinochchi town and Puthukudiirippu in the Mullaitivu district and in no mans land at Omanthai between LTTE held areas and the government controlled Vavuniya area.

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