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Sri Lanka: the end game?

Robin Lustig | 10:16 UK time, Friday, 17 April 2009

I imagine that, like me, you're glad that you don't have to deal with the contents of Barack Obama's in-tray.

Think about it: right at the top, two over-excited daughters, constantly squabbling over whose turn it is to take the new puppy for a run. And a wife who - even if she doesn't say it out loud is certainly thinking it: "Don't look at me ... you're the one who promised them a dog if we made it to the White House, so now you can deal with it."

And then, when both the daughters and the dog are finally asleep, there's the nearly as tricky question of what Iran and North Korea are up to at their various nuclear sites. And Iraq and Afghanistan, of course. Oh yes, and climate change. Did someone mention the economy?

And now, the people at the US State Department are telling you that you need to focus on Sri Lanka. They put out a statement last night: "The United States government is deeply concerned about the current danger to civilian lives and the dire humanitarian situation created by the fighting in the Mullaittivu area in Sri Lanka. We call upon the government and military of Sri Lanka, and the Tamil Tigers, to immediately stop hostilities until the more than 140,000 civilians in the conflict area are safely out."

On Wednesday, the British and French governments called on the Sri Lankan government to continue its 48-hour ceasefire, while also criticising the Tamil Tiger rebels for preventing civilians from leaving the conflict area.

So what's happening in Sri Lanka? Here's the brief history: for the last 25 years, on and off, the Tamil Tigers have been fighting for an independent Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. At least 70,000 - I'll repeat that, 70,000 - people have died in the conflict.

Now, after several months of heavy fighting, government forces seem to be on the verge of a military victory. The rebels control only a tiny sliver of land, but well over 100,000 civilians are trapped there. Many are dying, either as a result of military action or from diseases for which no treatment is available.

I spoke to the Red Cross earlier this week: they told me they have managed to get thousands of people out, but many thousands more are still stuck. Very few got out during the government ceasefire on Monday and Tuesday, either because the Tigers wouldn't let them leave, or because they were too frightened to.

You haven't seen or heard much about all this, have you? The reason is simple enough: the authorities won't let journalists anywhere near the conflict zone. So the Red Cross are just about the only people who know what's really happening.

And so far, all the international appeals for pauses, negotiations and the rest of it have fallen on deaf ears in Colombo. The government and the army are convinced that they are about to win this war once and for all. They are in no mood to stop now.

But those statements from Washington, London and Paris mean something. They mean there is real and growing international concern about the terrible cost in civilian lives of this military end-game. India is the traditional power broker in Sri Lanka, but India has just entered a month-long election process.

President Obama has just arrived in Mexico on his way to a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. He has drug wars, arms smuggling, illegal immigration and relations with Latin America on his mind.

I can't help wondering how much attention he's paying to Sri Lanka.


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