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Let our people go!

BBC reported on Friday that the LTTE says that the 250,000 civilians in the small area still controlled by them in northeastern Mullaitivu want to be ``protected’’ by them and remain in the area with B. Nadesan, who succeeded Tamilchelvan as the Tiger’s political chief, saying that the people did not want to end up in the hands of ``their killers’’ – those words being Nadesan’s and not the BBC’s according to the report. Not only Lankans but the whole world will take such claims not with the proverbial pinch of salt but with a whole barrel full. Who will believe such rubbish? Will those hapless people, many of them displaced not once but several times, want to remain at real risk of losing their lives and the few pitiful possessions they carried out of their homes and stay put in the Vanni? ``Not likely,’’ is the short answer. Not bloody likely we would say.

Nadesan, according to BBC, has made the laughable claim that the Tigers were not blocking civilians from leaving. Leaving aside such sick jokes, there is no escaping the reality that the Government of Sri Lanka and indeed all Lankans must do their best for these hapless people. There is no doubt that the government would, and it must, agree to a short ceasefire to allow those who want to leave Tiger-held areas to do so. But whether the LTTE would do likewise is another matter altogether. It is well known that the Tigers have long used a human shield strategy in fighting this war and using hapless people as cannon fodder is not new to them. No wonder then that a group of three Roman Catholic Bishops, two of them with diocese in the war-torn areas, and two Anglican Bishops have appealed to the Tigers ``that the presence of trapped civilians should not be used to gain military advantage.’’ Their statement, while asking both sides to be mindful of dangers to civilians, is unequivocal in its assertion that ``there should be no restriction on the civilian’s right to life and movement.’’ Appealing is one thing but securing compliance from those whose single minded devotion is to prolong this bloody conflict regardless of its cost of blood and misery is something else.

It is important at this time when the long-drawn war is nearing its end, that the military is not presented with deadlines that serve political interests. There is no politician born who would not want to announce the end of the conflict after a decades-long struggle, which has cost a nation and its people as hugely as this war has done, on a significant day. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is no exception and he would undoubtedly like to tell the nation on Feb. 4, our Independence Day, that the long march is over. No one would blame him for that. But that is less important, much less important we would say, than completing the task at hand with minimum harm to ordinary people who have already borne crosses too heavy for human backs. The Bishops have thanked the government for setting up the `No Fire Zone.’ But it will take two sides to make it work. We have no doubts on the government’s bona fides in this regard. The LTTE, accused of killing fleeing civilians, is a different cup of tea.

Lt. General Sarath Fonseka, the army commander, went on record recently saying that the army had completed 95 percent of the war at tremendous cost to itself. People are generally aware that the military has taken heavy casualties of dead and wounded soldiers although the figures are not publicized as and when they occur. There is good reason for this as publication of high casualty figures can prove demoralizing both to the troops in the front as well as to the country at large. It is customary for Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake to release in parliament the figures of military, police and civilians dead and wounded during the debate on the monthly renewal of the Emergency. Hopefully the December figures will be no worse than those during previous months of intensive fighting. Unlike in the case of the LTTE, the government is obliged to account for those killed, wounded and missing in action to their families. Bodies are returned wherever possible and military honours accorded in humble homes in the far-flung corners of this island as they are laid to their final rest. It is to the credit of this country that Sri Lanka looks after the families of servicemen killed and wounded in battle better than many others with far greater resources than ours. In addition to what is paid to a family of a soldier killed in action, he is promoted one rank posthumously and his salary continues till age 55. Thereafter his pension kicks off. What this costs the taxpayer in total we do not know, but what we do know is that not one cent of this would be grudged.

Heart rending pictures can be shot in the Vanni today and the LTTE which has over the years made a fine art of its propaganda continues to get as much mileage as it can of the undoubted misery in the theatre of war. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, as reported in our front page today, has made the valid point that it behoves the bleeding hearts to persuade the LTTE to let these people go. We do not however agree with Rajapaksa, who can be bluntly outspoken at times, that foreign correspondents and international news agencies perceived to be unfriendly must be kicked out of the country. That will only create an impression abroad that there is something to hide in Sri Lanka. India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee who was here last week, doubtlessly because of Tamil Nadu pressure on New Delhi, rightly conveyed concern for civilians at risk but made very clear that the LTTE did not have the sympathy of the Indian center.

As Dayan Jayatilleka has pointed in a tightly argued comment on this page, Prabhakaran is seeking to prolong this war anticipating two developments in the global scene: a new administration in the U.S. that is now in office and the forthcoming Indian elections where he hopes the incumbents will be voted out. As the writer has said, ``the challenge for the Sri Lankan state to eliminate his military capacity before these political changes can work in his favour.

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