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Sri Lanka rebels deny gunning down civilians

Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers on Wednesday denied gunning down civilians streaming out of the country’s war zone, and the Red Cross said 16 patients had been killed in shelling.

Tens of thousands of civilians are trapped in a 175-square-kilometre area held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), surrounded by a military intent on crushing the separatist rebels and finishing a civil war that started in 1983.

Another 2 260 streamed out of the tiny war zone on Tuesday, keeping up the rapid pace of exodus that started last week, the military said.

On Tuesday, the military accused the LTTE of killing 19 civilians and wounding 69 more trying to flee. Sri Lanka’s government, aid agencies and rights groups say the LTTE has forced Tamils to stay in the war zone, which the rebels deny.

Pro-rebel website said on Wednesday the rebels blamed Sri Lankan troops for the shooting. The website quoted C Ilamparithy, whom it identified as LTTE political chief for the area in question, Puthukudiyiruppu.

”Sri Lankan military machinery, which has relentlessly killed and maimed thousands of civilians during the past four weeks, is now engaged in a propaganda drive to divert the mounting pressure on the Colombo government,” TamilNet quoted him as saying.

It is impossible to verify either side’s claims, since the war zone is off-limits to unaccompanied journalists and both sides have engaged in a relentless propaganda duel for years.

”Sitting ducks”
For weeks, the LTTE through TamilNet has accused the military of killing civilians, which the government again rejected as a classic ploy of the rebels when they have been cornered throughout the war’s history.

”They know the moment these civilians move out on them, they are sitting ducks and there will be nothing they can do,” military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.

More than 50 000 soldiers are converging on the tiny wedge of jungle in northeastern Sri Lanka, which is all the Tigers still hold. Analysts say they have no more than 2 000 hardcore guerrillas remaining and face conventional defeat.

At least 30 000 people have fled this year, nearly all in the past week, according to the military. That is despite a suicide blast blamed on a female LTTE fighter that killed 29 soldiers and civilians at a refugee encampment on Monday.

Aid agencies say 250 000 civilians are caught in the fighting, although the government puts the number at half of that. The United Nations said on Tuesday it was preparing for an exodus of 150 000 people.

Nanayakkara said footage from an unmanned aerial drone (UAV) taken this week showed the rebels were herding people further into their territory, toward the coastline.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had to delay until Thursday its plan to ferry out by boat 160 patients from a make-shift field hospital, after the offloading of 240 others evacuated on Tuesday took longer than expected.

The patients were taken to the eastern port of Trincomalee from the LTTE-held coastal village of Putumattalan. Sixteen patients were killed there in shelling on Monday, the ICRC said without saying who was responsible.

”We are shocked the patients are not afforded the protection they are entitled to,” ICRC’s mission head for Sri Lanka, Paul Castella, said in a statement late on Tuesday.

He urged both sides to allow refugees to leave and aid to be brought in to the war zone. The government has promised safe passage but rebuffed calls for a ceasefire. Aid agencies say the LTTE has blocked aid convoys from leaving at times. — Reuters

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