Sri Lanka's army today pushed deeper into the no-fire zone where the Tamil
Tigers are trapped with thousands of civilians, as a noon deadline for the
rebels to surrender expired.
The Tigers claimed that at least 1,000 civilians had been killed in a
government artillery bombardment, and international aid agencies have warned
of an imminent bloodbath.
As evening fell the army said that more than 12,000 civilians had safely fled
the zone today, bringing the total exodus to 52,000 since troops breached a
rebel-built earth mound early yesterday that had been blocking their escape
"Troops are expanding the area under their control," Udaya
Nanayakkara, a miltary spokesman, said as the deadline passed. "We are
keeping up our offensive to rescue the civilians."
The Government estimates that there are 30,000 civilians still inside the
zone, but appears determined to launch a final assault to defeat the Tigers
as a conventional military force.
However, the United Nations and the Red Cross said there were at least 50,000
to 60,000 civilians inside the zone, and warned of a dramatic increase in
civilian casualties if the government offensive continued.
"The situation is nothing short of catastrophic," said Pierre
Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for the International Committee of the
Red Cross. "Ongoing fighting has killed or wounded hundreds of civilians who
have only minimal access to medical care."
Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, said that he was deeply concerned about
the trapped civilians, and the UN children's agency said that many more
children could be killed if the fighting continued.
The United States and Britain have backed the UN and Red Cross in calling for
a ceasefire until all the civilians have been evacuated from the safety
Michael Owen, the acting US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South
Asia, said that Sri Lanka should offer a deal under which the Tigers would
hand in their arms, possibly to a third party, in exchange for an amnesty
for "low-level" rebels.
"We are running out of time," he told the Brookings Institution
think-tank. "Really, there is literally only a couple of days to try to
get this finalised."
The Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for an independent homeland for
ethnic Tamils to protect them from what they see as discrimination at the
hands of the Sinhalese majority.
The army has pinned down the last 200 hardcore Tiger fighters and several
hundred recent recruits inside the safety zone in what appears to be the
finale of a 26-year civil war that has claimed 70,000 lives.
The Tigers vowed yesterday to fight to the death, and warned the Government of
a bloodbath if its troops continued to push into the no-fire zone.
"Thousands of people will die - this is a very congested area," a spokesman,
who identified himself by his nom de guerre, Thileepan, told The Times.
"We'll never surrender because we're fighting for our people's freedom."
He said that only 2,000 civilians fled the zone yesterday, to escape shelling
by government forces which he said had killed at least 1,000 civilians,
including 312 children, in the previous 24 hours.
He also accused government forces of using cluster bombs and chemical and
biological weapons, an allegation that the army denies.
It is impossible to verify information from either side as the Government has
barred most independent reporters and aid workers from the frontline. The
Times has been denied a journalist's visa since August.