Sri Lanka urges rebels to let civilians flee war zone

Sri Lanka’s president urged the Tamil Tiger rebels on Friday to allow about 250 000 civilians trapped in the northern war zone to flee to safety following reports of heavy casualties among noncombatants stuck in the shrinking territory.

Human rights groups have accused the rebels of holding the civilians hostage and accused the military of launching heavy attacks in areas filled with civilians, including a government-declared ”safe zone” in the north.

A senior United Nations official said both sides appeared to have committed ”grave breaches of human rights”. The rebels and the military deny the charges.

In the appeal published on Friday on a government website, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said the rebels’ refusal to let noncombatants leave was endangering their lives and he accused the rebels — known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — of putting their heavy artillery inside the ”safe zone” and using it as a ”launching pad” for attacks on government troops.

”I urge the LTTE, within the next 48 hours to allow free movement of civilians to ensure their safety and security. For all those civilians, I assure a safe passage to a secure environment,” he said.

The military said the president’s statement did not amount to a unilateral 48-hour truce and said the offensive was proceeding on Friday.

”There’s no ceasefire,” military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.

Government forces sank a suspected Tiger suicide boat off the island’s north-eastern coast, a military official said.

The navy detected the explosives-laden LTTE boat off the coast of Mullaittivu district. It exploded in a fireball, the official said, adding that ”there were at least two people aboard when it was attacked”.

The rebels could not be reached for comment since nearly all communication to the north has been severed. Independent accounts of the fighting are not available because most journalists are barred from the war zone.

A group of international relief organisations, including UN agencies, also urged the LTTE to allow civilians to leave areas under their control, and the government to stop blocking international aid.

The European Union’s Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel called for a halt in the war.

”This is an escalating humanitarian catastrophe. We are extremely worried about the terrible situation facing people trapped in the fighting,” Michel said in Brussels.

He said that many civilians had died and hundreds of wounded people were without adequate medical care.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said top UN officials were ”seriously alarmed” over the fate of civilians in the north.

”It seems there may have been very grave breaches of human rights by both sides in the conflict, and it is imperative that we find out more about what exactly has been going on,” she said.

She also expressed concern over the government’s ban on letting aid workers and reporters enter the conflict zone.

”The lack of access for independent monitors, humanitarian workers and the media only adds to concerns that the situation may be even worse than we realise,” she said.

The rebels, who have been fighting for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in northern Sri Lanka since 1983, were ousted from all major towns after heavy battles in recent months and are now cornered in a 300 square kilometre area of jungle and villages in the northeast.

The Red Cross estimates 250 000 civilians are trapped in the shrinking territory still under rebel control.

”The overall humanitarian situation remains precarious for thousands,” the Red Cross said in a statement. ”Stocks have been depleted and sustainable ways of producing food locally have become almost nonexistent.”

On Thursday, the UN evacuated hundreds of wounded civilians from the conflict zone.

UN spokesperson Gordon Weiss said a convoy transporting the injured people was held up by rebels on Wednesday before being allowed to cross into government territory on Thursday morning.

It included ”50 critically injured children on board and some hundreds of [other] critically injured”, he said.

Nanayakkara, the military spokesperson, has said no civilians have been killed, but that some people who were forced by the rebels to build fortifications might have been wounded in crossfire.

The Tamil Tigers want to create a separate state for minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalisation at the hands of governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70 000 people have been killed in the civil war. — Sapa-AP

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