/ 6 February 2009

Sri Lankan troops seize more Tiger bases

Sri Lankan troops on Friday captured more Tamil Tiger bases, including a camp of the rebel leader’s security unit, as UN chief Ban Ki-moon raised fresh concerns for civilians trapped in the war zone.

With government forces pressing forward, more than 2 500 civilians managed to flee the small area of jungle still under rebel control, state radio said, adding that another 3 000 were ”waiting to come over”.

The security forces seized a large quantity of automatic assault rifles, detonators and hand grenades from three camps of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the district of Mullaittivu, a military official said.

One of the camps belonged to the ”Ratha unit”, which provided security to elusive Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, the official said.

”Clearing operations are now under way,” he said, adding that troops were consolidating their hold on the Chalai Sea Tiger base seized on Thursday.

With the fall of Chalai, the Tigers now only have access to 20km of coastline in the northeastern district.

The military said the area under rebel control had shrunk to less than 100 square kilometres and as fighting intensified, international concern over the fate of civilians trapped in the zone also heightened.

Ban telephoned President Mahinda Rajapakse to discuss the plight of the non-combatants and was given an ”assurance” they would not be harassed, a government statement said.

The group that reportedly escaped the rebel area moved on Friday morning to Visuamadu district, which troops captured from the guerrillas recently, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) said.

They fled after troops used loudhailers to urge civilians to move across the de facto front line to safety, the SLBC said in a report from its journalists embedded with government forces.

Some of the civilians told security forces that the Tigers tried to stop them leaving and beat some of them with cycle chains.

The United Nations, which has a presence in the island’s embattled areas, reported at least 52 non-combatants were killed in a single shelling incident earlier this week — though it did not say who was responsible.

The main hospital in the war zone was evacuated on Wednesday after repeated shelling and another rural medical centre was preparing to move away on Friday, medical sources said.

The government had ordered doctors to move the makeshift centres to safer government-held areas in the region, but aid workers said the guerrillas had prevented the relocation.

International rights groups and foreign governments have urged the Tigers to allow civilians safe passage, but Sri Lanka’s key foreign aid donors acknowledged on Tuesday that they had failed to secure rebel agreement.

Doctors said some rural hospitals had dead bodies with no relatives to claim them because of the fighting in the area.

The United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway have asked the rebels to lay down their arms and take part in a political dialogue to end the bloodshed and save the lives of civilians as well as combatants.

In a statement, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry welcomed the calls, while stressing that it was the LTTE who had been preventing civilians from getting out of the conflict zone.

”The government notes the timely call to the LTTE to lay down arms,” the ministry said, adding that it had repeatedly called on the rebels to surrender their weapons and join the democratic process.

Sri Lanka has brushed aside previous international appeals for a ceasefire and vowed to finish off the guerrillas, who have been leading a campaign for a separate state for minority ethnic Tamils since 1972.

Mob stones Red Cross office
Meanwhile, a mob stoned the main office of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Colombo on Friday, smashing windows, a spokesperson told AFP.

The crowd of protesters, estimated to number about 200, shouted slogans, including ”ICRC go home”, before being dispersed by police, spokesperson Sophie Romanens said.

”There was a mob outside the delegation office and they were shouting slogans and pelting stones. No one was hurt fortunately, but some windows were broken,” she said. — Sapa-AFP