About 2 000 people have fled Sri Lanka’s shrinking war zone over the past two days as troops fight towards a final showdown with Tamil Tiger separatist rebels, the military said on Monday.
Sri Lanka’s military has turned the tide against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a 25-year war, encircling them in 30 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean island’s northeast, and is aiming to deliver a knockout blow.
Aid agencies say there are tens of thousands of people trapped in increasingly desperate circumstances, and the United Nations has said about 2 800 have been killed in heavy fighting since the end of January. The government rejects those numbers.
By Monday, soldiers were within a kilometre of a no-fire zone where the government says there are 70 000 people, the military said. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says there are 150 000 civilians there.
”They [troops] are closing into the safe zone in certain areas,” military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. At least seven Tigers were killed on Sunday, he said.
He said 902 people came on foot to army-held areas on Sunday, while another 62 fled by boat. On Saturday 1 015 came out, more than 420 of them by boat with the assistance of the ICRC.
Among those who came out on Sunday was one of 15 United Nations workers forcibly kept in the war zone by the Tigers, a UN spokesperson said.
”The wife of a UN staff member was injured by an anti-personnel mine while escaping with the staff member and their two children,” spokesperson Gordon Weiss said.
She was being treated at hospital in Vavuniya, a northern town where the military and most aid agencies base their headquarters for operations in the war zone.
The military’s Nanayakkara declined to say what the military’s plan was for helping civilians get out of the no-fire zone, a thin 12-km coastal strip bounded by water on two sides.
The Defence Ministry in a statement said that Army snipers were killing LTTE fighters sent to shoot fleeing people.
The UN has urged a halt to fighting to let people get out. The government has rejected the call, but says it will guarantee safe passage for civilians.
The LTTE says people are staying of their own free will, despite witness accounts saying the rebels were shooting people trying to flee.
The UN high commissioner for human rights on Friday accused the government of shelling the no-fire zone, echoing an LTTE allegation.
The government denies that and says it has stopped using heavy weapons against Tiger artillery positions located there, and is taking more casualties as a result.
Civilians face a harrowing existence in the war zone. Besides the heavy fighting, the Tigers have covered thousands of square kilometres they had once controlled with mines and booby traps.
The United Nations says they are forcibly recruiting people, including children as young as 15, to fight in what the military calls their last stand as a conventional guerrilla force.
The Tigers are on US, EU, Indian and Canadian terrorist lists, and have been fighting a civil war since 1983 to establish a separate homeland for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils. — Reuters