Thousands of civilians flee Tigers-held territory

Thousands of civilians have fled Sri Lanka’s northern war zone in recent days, crossing the front lines amid fierce fighting as the army closed in on the rebels’ last stronghold, the military said on Friday.

The government says it hopes the exodus represents the start of a mass flight that will remove hundreds of thousands of bystanders from harm’s way as the military tries to crush the Tamil Tigers’ decades-old insurgency.

Aid workers and diplomats have expressed growing concern over the fate of the civilians trapped in what remains of rebel-controlled territory in the northeast after months of fighting.

While the military has so far avoided large-scale civilian deaths, there have been increasing reports of civilian casualties.

Civilians have largely ignored past government appeals for them to cross into military-held areas. However, with the rebel-held area shrinking and nowhere left to run, families now have begun fleeing in large numbers, the military said.

On Thursday alone, 1 069 civilians fled into government territory, the military said. The day before, 874 crossed over. A total of 2 735 fled in the first 15 days of 2009, dwarfing the 1 ,600 who left in all of 2008.

”It has started, and day by day it is increasing,” said military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara.

The military has vowed to destroy the rebel group and in recent weeks has captured the Tamil Tigers’ de facto capital of Kilinochchi and boxed the insurgents into a small pocket of territory in the northeast. An estimated 250 000 civilians remain in the area, many of them having fled from other areas ahead of advancing troops, aid groups said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch accused the rebels last month of preventing civilians from leaving, and the government said the insurgents were using them as human shields to block the military offensive.

The rebels could not be reached for comment.

The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed the growing civilian flight, saying on Friday that as the rebel area shrank and the fighting escalated, there was no safe place left for them to hide.

”Families heading westward in search of safety are encountering other families moving eastward with the same aim,” said Paul Castella, the head of the Red Cross office in Sri Lanka.

The families that have chosen to flee are trudging through the jungles with their belongings, Nanayakkara said. When they run into government troops, they are questioned to determine whether they are rebels and then sent to displacement camps in the south, he said.

Human Rights Watch has accused the government of arbitrarily detaining those civilians who managed to flee the rebel areas and described the camps as ”badly disguised prisons”.

Meanwhile, concerns mounted over the safety of the civilians still in the war zone.

Dr T Varatharajah, the government health director in the region, sent a letter to the Red Cross and the United Nations on Thursday describing deteriorating conditions in the rebel-held areas.

In the letter, obtained by the Associated Press, Varatharajah said there was a severe shortage of food, shelter, medicine and medical staff. One local hospital was hit by several artillery shells on Tuesday that wounded two patients, he said.

”This totally inhumane attack … has left the staff and the people in total panic,” he wrote. He did not say who fired the artillery.

The rebels have been fighting since 1983 to establish an independent state for minority Tamils, who have suffered marginalisation at the hands of successive governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority.

More than 70 000 people have been killed in the violence. – Sapa-AP

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