Sri Lanka says British aid destined for Tamil civilians could be cover for weapons

Celebrities and politicians gather in London to publicise humanitarian voyage

  •, Wednesday 1 April 2009 10.33 BST
  • Campaigners who have collected 400 tonnes of food and medical aid for the 150,000 Tamil civilians trapped by the fighting between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers have reacted angrily to claims from Colombo that the aid mission could be a cover for supplying weapons to the rebels.

    A coalition of charities, celebrities and politicians gathered in central London yesterday to publicise the voyage of the Vananga Man, the ship that will set out with the humanitarian supplies early next week.

    Among them were the models Jasmine Guinness and Jade Parfitt, and John Horam, MP for Orpington and a member of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils.

    Act Now, the campaign group co-ordinating the mission, says the Vananga Man will transport only medicine, baby milk, rice and chapati flour to Tamils caught in the “no fire zone” declared by the Sri Lankan government, as the army tries to wipe out the Tamil Tigers once and for all.

    The government, however, says it has “serious concerns” about the ship’s cargo, claiming that the Tigers have used previous aid shipments to smuggle in arms.

    “We are aware of the ship and we have taken this up with the UK authorities,” a spokesman for the Sri Lanka High Commission told the Guardian. “We are concerned and we have serious questions about the ship. We know what has happened in the past.”

    The spokesman denied reports in the Tamil media that the Sri Lankan navy would open fire on the Vananga Man as soon as the ship entered its territorial waters. He added that the government might “consider the case” of whether to allow the aid in if it received an assurance from the UK government that the ship had been checked and found to contain humanitarian supplies.

    Graham Williamson, one of the directors of Act Now, rejected the accusations.

    He said all the containers on the Vananga Man were being x-rayed by British authorities so its cargo could be verified. “If that third party check isn’t good enough for them, what is?” he said. “I think the government is being facetious and deliberately provocative and is trying to find an excuse for not allowing the aid to land.”

    A spokeswoman for the foreign office said it was aware of the ship and had been contacted about it by the Sri Lankan government.

    “We have passed the information that we have to the relevant UK authorities,” she said.

    The doctor in charge of the makeshift hospitals in the no fire zone told the Guardian last week that civilians were being “repeatedly shelled for no reason” and that his staff had only 10% of the supplies they needed.

    Colombo has so far rejected calls for a ceasefire, saying the Tigers are intent on creating a civilian bloodbath to increase international pressure for a truce.

    UN figures show there are more than 60 deaths a day due to army bombardment. More than 3,000 people have been killed and 7,000 more injured since the end of January.

    Among the high-profile campaigners calling for action are the Tamil singer MIA and the writer Arundhati Roy.

    “The [Vananga Man] will carry dry food and medicines for Tamil civilians in Vanni within the Sri Lankan government’s ‘safe zone’,” said MIA. “Many have already perished from starvation and preventable disease. We cannot ignore these genocidal conditions, and if the aim of the Sri Lankan government is to protect the lives of civilians, then this ship will reach its destination and lives will be saved.”

    Roy, writing for CommentisFree, warns of a genocide and criticises the international community for standing by and doing nothing.

    “It’s a colossal humanitarian tragedy,” she writes. “The world must step in. Now. Before it’s too late.”

    source :

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