3,000 civilians flee Sri Lanka war zone

COLOMBO (AFP) Nearly 3,000 civilians escaped from Sri Lanka’s war zone and sought shelter with security forces, the defence ministry said Sunday as troops stepped up an offensive against cornered Tiger rebels.

The non-combatants escaped Saturday evening from the remaining area under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the ministry said in a statement.

“The civilians started arriving in large groups since (Saturday) afternoon using the safe routes opened for them by troops,” the ministry said.

The influx into government-held territory was in contrast to the trickle of civilians that came through when the military observed a unilateral two-day truce earlier in the week, the ministry noted.

Security forces kept up their offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels trapped in a government-declared “no-fire zone,” ignoring international appeals for a ceasefire.

At least 17 rebels were killed and another 22 wounded in fighting Saturday, the government said.

“Battlefield reports indicated that troops have encountered stiff resistance from the terrorists,” it said.

President Mahinda Rajapakse told party workers at his tightly guarded residence in Colombo Saturday that the decimated Tamil Tigers faced a stark choice.

“They have only three alternatives. Either they have to surrender to our armed forces, eat the cyanide capsule (worn round their necks) and commit suicide, or plunge into the sea,” he said.

Rajapakse said the international community should stop putting pressure on him for another ceasefire and instead ask Tiger rebels to free civilians in the conflict zone.

The United Nations says up to 100,000 civilians are trapped in the area in “dire humanitarian conditions.”

Officials said the government had made it clear to a top UN envoy that Sri Lanka was not willing to extend its unilateral ceasefire.

The government has accused the Tigers of holding civilians as a human shield, a charge denied by the guerrillas, who are trying to prevent a total defeat after fighting for 37 years for a separate state.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon last week sent his chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, for talks with Sri Lankan leaders to extend the ceasefire but was rebuffed, officials said.



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