/ 21 April 2009

Sri Lanka rebels ignore deadline to surrender

The Sri Lankan army on Tuesday seized more territory from the Tamil Tigers as the rebels ignored a government deadline to surrender, the Defence Ministry said.

The attack saw government forces effectively slice the last small strip of jungle held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in two, and came as tens of thousands of civilians fled the fighting.

”The LTTE has not responded to the government’s call to surrender, so we are keeping up our offensive to rescue the civilians,” military spokesperson Udaya Nanayakkara said as the 06:30GMT Tuesday deadline passed.

The government says its troops are now poised to totally defeat the LTTE, a hardened guerrilla group that has been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland on the ethnic Sinhalese-majority island since the 1970s.

The defence ministry said more than 39 000 men, women and children managed to escape after troops punctured rebel defences at Puttumatalan, inside the rebel-held area, on Monday.

It also said 17 civilians who tried to escape from rebel-held territory on Monday had been killed by the guerrillas while another 373 had been wounded.

The pro-rebel Tamilnet website, however, reported the area was littered with hundreds of bodies of civilians it said were killed in government shelling.

Journalists are barred from working in the north, making it impossible to verify the rival claims independently.

Government estimates show another 30 000 civilians could be still held by the Tigers, but the United Nations says the number could be twice as much and warned Tuesday that an all-out assault risked producing a bloodbath.

”If fighting continues and if the LTTE refuses to allow people to leave the conflict zone, then we face the intolerable inevitability of seeing many more children killed,” said Unicef’s South Asia regional director, Daniel Toole.

But Sri Lanka’s hawkish President Mahinda Rajapakse has signalled he is unwilling to put his troops on pause while victory is in sight.

He said the rebels were facing ”complete defeat” and their reclusive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, had finally run out of time.

”The only thing Prabhakaran can now do is to surrender,” he said. ”I don’t want him to take cyanide and commit suicide. He has to face charges for his actions.”

So far, the only reaction from the Tigers has been to renew their call for an unconditional ceasefire — something the government has already rejected.

The crisis has sparked protests in Europe and expressions of concern by UN and human rights groups.

In Paris French police arrested 210 people on Monday when a rally by Tamils turned violent as demonstrators threw bottles at security forces and smashed windscreens.

In London thousands of Tamils blocked some of the city’s busiest streets, demonstrating outside parliament and calling for an immediate ceasefire.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that the world had only hours to prevent a potential ”bloodbath” in Sri Lanka.

Anna Neistat, a senior HRW researcher, said the international community had ”to make it crystal clear to both sides of this conflict — both the LTTE and the government of Sri Lanka — that they will not get away with it.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the escape of the civilians but was ”deeply concerned” about those still trapped, his office said. — Sapa-AFP