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Sri Lanka continues bombing of "safe zone"

Oliver Scanlan
1 May 2009

Mexican ambassador and UN Security Council President Claude Heller announced today that in the view of the council, withholding an IMF loan from the Sri Lankan government was "unnecessary". This is in spite of Sri Lanka's stubborn refusal to accept a ceasefire in its ongoing  bid to eliminate the Tamil Tiger rebels and the reversal of its earlier assertion that it had not bombed the "safe zones" where tens of thousands of civilians are boxed in with the remnant of the rebel forces. In admitting that the military had indeed shelled the area with aircraft and heavy weapons, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Palitha Kohona asserted that the strikes had focused on Tamil Tiger artillery, well away from the civilians.

The toD verdict: When Kohona was confronted with detailed satellite pictures from the UN satellite imaging agency (Unosat), which depicted large craters within the safe zone, he initially challenged their authenticity. Only when it became clear that this was an untenable position did he concede that military forces carried out aerial bombing over an area containing thousands of civilians.

The UN estimates that there are as many as 50,000 civilians still trapped in the five square kilometre stretch of land from where Tamil Tiger fighters continue to hold out, with 200,000 civilians now in nearby government camps after fleeing the area. There are credible reports that the government is continuing to shell civilian areas, but also that the Tigers are using human shields.

Britain and France have called for a ceasefire to protect civilians and the US reportedly tried to delay a $1.9 billion IMF loan in order to pile pressure on Colombo. These efforts have come to naught and Sri Lanka continues with its campaign, claiming heavy rebel casualties. With firm restrictions on media access to the war zone, it is impossible to be sure at this point how many civilians have died in the cross fire. 

Britain ends Iraq combat operations

On Thursday, the UK marked the end of its combat mission in Iraq with a flag lowering ceremony in Basra. Describing Iraq as a "success story", Prime Minister Gordon Brown affirmed that "Britain can be proud of our legacy". British troops will be pulling out of Iraq a month ahead of schedule, with US troops moving in to replace them. Fewer than 400 UK troops will remain, largely engaged in training the embryonic Iraqi navy. Leader of the opposition Conservative party David Cameron has called for a full parliamentary Inquiry into the war, saying that "there are vital lessons to learn".

On Friday in Iraq, three US servicemen were killed in combat operations in Anbar province. The deaths bring the total US military death toll for the month of April to eighteen, the highest this year.

Pakistan's future in the balance, says Petraeus

The commander of the United States Central Command, General David Petraeus, has reportedly told members of the United States Congress that the next two weeks will be critical in determining Pakistan's future. In an apparent reference to recent concerted action by the Pakistan army to push the Taliban back, Petraeus said that the Pakistanis are "finally getting serious" about combating militant groups. Recent weeks have seen the Islamist militants encroach to within sixty miles of Islamabad, with the Pakistani military now responding fiercely. Petraeus' comments are the latest in a series of bleak announcements by United States government officials regarding Pakistan's role in the region, with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton last week raising the spectre of a nuclear-armed Taliban state were Pakistan allowed to collapse.

Lebanon tribunal releases pro-Syrian generals

On Wednesday, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon ordered the release of four generals held in Lebanon since 2005 over the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. The generals are members of a Lebanese defence and intelligence establishment that leans heavily towards Syria, which effectively occupied Lebanon from 1976 to 2005. International outrage over Hariri's assassination, for which Syria was blamed, was instrumental in ending Syria's hold over Lebanon.

The Tribunal was established in The Hague to try those suspected of killing Hariri. The release of the four generals occurred when UN Special Prosecutor Daniel Bellamare submitted a report saying that there was not enough evidence to hold them. The decision has sparked further tensions in Lebanon's divided political scene, as the opposition Hezbollah party looks to "score points" on the generals' release ahead of June elections.

Alleged Russian spies expelled by NATO

A senior official in Russia's mission to NATO and the son of the Russian ambassador to the European Union were expelled on Thursday, in a move which threatens to undermine recent attempts to mend fences between the west and Moscow. The two men were accused of espionage, but Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitri O. Rogozin, denied the charges, calling the expulsions "a clear-cut provocation" and threatening retaliation. The move comes at a time of increased tensions, with Russia objecting to planned NATO military exercises in Georgia. NATO has in turn criticised Moscow's recent agreements with Abkhazia and South Ossetia that give Russia the authority to guard their borders as being in violation of the ceasefire agreement that ended the summer war between Russia and Georgia.

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