Sri Lankan Army Pushes on with Final Assault on Cornered Tamils

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The Guardian/UK

Sri Lankan Army Pushes on with Final Assault on Cornered Tamils

Government defies calls for halt to fighting and UN accusations of bloodbath

by
Gethin Chamberlain in Delhi

A Sri Lankan army photograph showing ethnic Tamil civilians on the run from the fighting. Photograph: Handout/Sri Lankan army

Sri Lankan armed forces
were claiming "total victory" as they launched a final assault on the
cornered Tamil Tigers in the north-east of the country, defying
international pleas for a halt to the fighting and warnings from the United Nations of a bloodbath.

With
the army seemingly determined to wipe out the last remnants of the
rebels, at least 30,000 civilians - possibly as many as 80,000 -
remained trapped and unaccounted for inside the single square mile of
territory still held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Unconfirmed
reports suggeste that Tamil leaders were preparing to kill themselves
rather than face capture. Some cadres are known to carry a cyanide
capsule with them at all times.

Tamil sources in the UK said they
were unaware of the reports and all contact with those left inside the
"no-fire zone", the government-designated haven where non-combatants
were supposed to be able to escape the fighting, has now been cut.

The
Sri Lankan military said intercep­ted radio communications had revealed
the mass suicide plan. The military also said that the wife of the Sea
Tiger leader, Soosai, who commanded the rebels' naval forces, had
suggested under questioning that he and other senior figures remained
inside the no-fire zone.

The Sri Lankan army assault went ahead
despite a warning from Gordon Brown, that "there will be consequences
for its actions". Downing Street said the prime minister had made
several phone calls to the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa,
urging the need for an end to violence and aid for civilians.

Humanitarian
agencies, meanwhile, were in despair as sporadic reports emerged of
thousands of civilians being killed inside the no-fire zone.

James Elder, the Unicef spokesman in Sri Lanka,
said those who remained in the no-fire zone were at the mercy of
"indiscriminate firing" from all sides. "It is a bloodbath. It is a
catastrophic situation," he said. "We are seeing a complete disregard
for civilian life. It is hard to think of a worse place on earth to be
right now than on that stretch of beach."

About 20,000 people are
believed to have escaped from the no-fire zone between Thursday and
afternoon, but Elder said many of those who had managed to get out were
in a terrible condition. "When you look at the state of the first
people to leave three weeks ago, there were malnourished children and
women, and people with gunshot wounds and shrapnel injuries, and these
people now have been there for another three weeks with next to nothing
to eat in terrible conditions. It is going to be a nightmare," he said.

Gordon
Weiss, the UN spokesman, said reliable reports from inside the war zone
had dried up after the "courageous" doctors who had been working out of
the last makeshift hospital at Mullaivaikal East primary school were
forced to abandon the building in the face of heavy fighting yesterday.
"We are most concerned about the fate of the 30,000 to 80,000 people
who are left inside the combat zone," he said. "This is precisely the
situation we feared all along - that they would be left inside at the
penultimate moments of the battle."

Despite the mounting death
toll, neither side in the conflict showed any willingness to lay down
arms to allow the trapped civilians to escape. The Tigers said in a
statement that they were "extremely mindful of the civilian hardships"
and were "prepared to take all necessary measures that would
immediately stop the current carnage". They said that "an onslaught by
the government will only result in thousands more dying and will not
pave a way for a dignified and respectful outcome".

The Sri
Lankan military said it would press on with what it described as a
humanitarian operation. Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, the military
spokesman, said: "Operations are continuing to rescue the civilians
still being held hostage by the terrorists."

Today the Sri Lankan
army completed a pincer movement to surround the Tigers, seizing
control of the coastline and cutting off the rebel group's escape route
to the sea. The whereabouts of the group's leader, Velupillai
Prabhakaran, and other senior commanders are unknown.

The UN
secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has sent his chief of staff, Vijay
Nambiar, to Sri Lanka for a second time to try to bring the conflict to
a peaceful conclusion. Nambiar was due to arrive last night to hold
meetings with senior government officials. The government has brushed
off repeated calls from foreign diplomats for a humanitarian truce,
saying this would only give the rebels time to regroup.

Attempts
by the International Committee of the Red Cross to evacuate thousands
of wounded civilians failed last week, with the organisation saying the
scale of the fighting made it impossible to get casualties out.

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