, COLOMBO, July 9 – The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday it had been ordered by Sri Lanka to scale down relief operations in the island where it has been helping civilian war victims.
As a result, the ICRC said it was withdrawing expatriate staff from the battle-scarred northeast which was the focus of the final government offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels that ended in outright victory in May.
"Following the cessation of active hostilities between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the government of Sri Lanka has asked the ICRC to scale down its operations in the country," the charity said.
It said the ICRC would re-assess its operations, which included providing relief to those displaced by the fighting and visiting captured rebels to ensure their proper treatment in custody.
"The ICRC is in the process of reviewing its set-up and operational priorities in Sri Lanka," said Jacques de Maio, the agency’s head of operations for South Asia.
"As a first step, it will close its offices and withdraw its expatriate staff from the Eastern Province while winding down its operations in the area.
"However, the ICRC will continue its dialogue with the Sri Lankan government on issues of humanitarian concern."
As fighting escalated in the final days of the conflict with the Tamil Tigers, the ICRC had spoken of an unfolding "humanitarian catastrophe" in the war zone amid a surge in civilian casualties.
The ICRC has had a strained relationship with the Sri Lankan government which accused the Geneva-based charity of inciting panic over civilian deaths.
The two were also at loggerheads over the issue of camps for the displaced, with the ICRC demanding "unimpeded access" to the facilities.
Some 300,000 civilians were displaced by the fighting and are currently held in camps by the authorities who have restricted their movements. Critics say they are being subjected to prison-like conditions.
"In accordance with its mandate, the ICRC reaffirms its commitment to address the humanitarian needs of those directly or indirectly affected by the recent conflict, including displaced people and returnees," the ICRC said in its statement Thursday.
The military has also said that about 10,000 Tigers had surrendered to them and are being held in detention camps.
The ICRC entered Sri Lanka in 1989 at the height of an uprising by Sinhalese militants who tried to topple the government. However, the rebellion was crushed by 1990 and the ICRC was invited to stay on as the military resumed fighting Tamil rebels.