/ 4 February 2009

Sri Lanka: Tamil Tigers on verge of defeat

Sri Lanka’s president said on Wednesday the Tamil Tiger rebels were on the verge of defeat, but dozens of civilians were reported killed as fierce fighting continued in Asia’s longest-running civil war.

In a National Day address, President Mahinda Rajapakse said he was confident the Tigers would be finished within days, even as the United States and Britain called for a ceasefire to get trapped civilians to safety.

With the rebels’ campaign for a separate Tamil homeland ravaged, a United Nations spokesperson said heavy shelling had killed more than 50 civilians and forced the evacuation of the only hospital in the battle zone.

Rajapakse said the ”shadows of terrorism have almost been wiped out”, with the last remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — who launched their militant struggle in 1972 — cornered in the jungle.

”I am confident that the Tigers will be completely defeated in a few days,” he said.

A military offensive over the past year has dismantled the Tigers’ mini-state in northern Sri Lanka, where the rebels have lost 98% of the territory once under their control.

UN spokesperson Gordon Weiss said that at least 52 civilians were killed in one shelling attack late on Tuesday.

”We don’t know who is responsible or how many shells hit, but we have this report from our staff,” he said, adding the region’s only hospital was evacuated on Wednesday after 16 hours of shelling, including a cluster bomb attack.

With UN agencies suggesting 250 000 civilians could be trapped in the combat zone, foreign governments said the bloodshed must end.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her British counterpart, David Miliband, called for a ”temporary no-fire period”.

”Both sides need to allow civilians and wounded to leave the conflict area and to grant access for humanitarian agencies,” they said after meeting in Washington.

The joint US-British statement came after the quartet of Sri Lanka’s international backers — the United States, European Union, Japan and Norway — called on the rebels to negotiate terms of surrender.

The quartet, known as ”Co-Chairs”, had backed Oslo-led peace moves and in 2003 co-hosted a donor conference that raised $4,5-billion in support of efforts to end ethnic bloodletting in the South-Asian nation.

”There remains probably only a short period of time before the LTTE loses control of all areas in the north,” they said in a statement that was the first international acknowledgement that the Tigers are facing defeat.

”The LTTE and the government should recognise that further loss of life of civilians and combatants will serve no cause,” they added.

There was no immediate reaction from the Tigers, and the quartet said their efforts to persuade the LTTE to allow civilians to flee the fighting had failed.

Human Rights Watch said Sri Lankan authorities had shown a ”callous indifference” towards non-combatants trapped in fighting by refusing to guarantee their safety.

But Rajapakse, a member of the majority Sinhalese community, pledged to protect ethnic Tamil civilians.

”There is no religious or ethnic discrimination in our country,” he said in his address. ”It is my responsibility and duty to protect all the people.”

Sri Lanka’s government — which pulled out of a Norwegian-brokered truce a year ago — has so far rejected any proposed new ceasefire, vowing instead to crush the Tigers.

It claimed another success late on Wednesday with the capture of a Tiger base where the rebels’ leader reportedly held ritualistic last suppers with suicide bombers before they were sent on missions. — AFP