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Obama 'saddened' by Lankan humanitarian crisis

Last updated on: May 14, 2009 15:10 IST

It is unprecedented in the history of United States-Sri Lanka relations that a US President goes out on the South Lawn of the White House to make remarks expressing his deep concern over the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka and berates both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan government for their actions that have led to tens of thousands of innocent civilians being caught up in the cross-fire.

But that's exactly what President Barack Obama did on Wednesday when he said, "We have a humanitarian crisis that's taking place in Sri Lanka, and I've been increasingly saddened by the desperate news in recent days."

"Tens of thousands of innocent civilians are trapped between the warring government forces and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka with no means of escape, little access to food, water, shelter and medicine. This has led to widespread suffering and the loss of hundreds if not thousands of lives," Obama added.

Obama warned, "Without urgent action, this humanitarian crisis could turn into a catastrophe," and implored that "now is the time, I believe, to put aside some of the political issues that are involved and to put the lives of the men and women and children who are innocently caught in the crossfire, to put them first."

Thus, he exhorted the "Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms and let civilians go," and condemned the LTTE's "forced recruitment of civilians and their use of civilians as human shields," describing it as "deplorable."

"These tactics will only serve to alienate all those who carry them out," he said.

Obama also called on the Sri Lankan government "to take several steps to alleviate this humanitarian crisis," and listed a laundry list of actions the government should take to assuage this grave situation.

"First, the government should stop the indiscriminate shelling that has taken hundreds of innocent lives, including several hospitals, and the government should live up to its commitment to not use heavy weapons in the conflict zone," Obama said.

"Second, the government should give United Nations humanitarian teams access to the civilians who are trapped between the warring parties so they can receive the immediate assistance necessary to save lives," Obama also said.

 "Third, the Lankan government should also allow UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross access to nearly 1,90,000 displaced people within Sri Lanka so that they can receive additional support that they need," Obama added.

The US President said that "the United States stands ready to work with the international community to support the people of Sri Lanka in this time of suffering. I don't believe that we can delay. Now is the time for all of us to work together to avert further humanitarian suffering."

Obama asserted that "going forward Sri Lanka must seek a peace that is secure and lasting, and grounded in respect for all of its citizens," and reiterated that "more civilian casualties and inadequate care for those caught in resettlement camps will only make it more difficult to achieve the peace that the people of Sri Lanka deserve."

The US President remarks followed a day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and visiting British Secretary David Miliband met at the State Department, where the situation in Sri Lanka was a major agenda item. In their discussions and at the end of their meeting they issued a joint statement on the humanitarian situation in the island nation expressing "their profound concern about the humanitarian crisis in northern Sri Lanka caused by the ongoing hostilities."

Much of the their joint statement was reflected in Obama remarks and sources acknowledged that Clinton had urged the President to reiterate these concerns from the bully pulpit of the White House so that both the Tigers and the Sri Lankans "would get the message loud and clear."

Obama's remarks also came two days after several hundred expatriate Tamils from all across the US held a day-long demonstration on Lafayette Park, opposite the White House and implored Obama to send US forces to stop the Sri Lankan government troops from indiscriminately killing innocent Tamil civilians.

A spokesman for the protestors, Elias Jeyarajah declared, "This is pure and simply genocide. We are asking the Obama administration to intervene to save the Tamils of Sri Lanka by sending its army there."

He said the Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapakse, "has abdicated its responsibility to protect its Tamil citizens."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington D.C