- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) - Sri Lankan troops have surrounded dozens of Tamil Tiger separatist rebels during fierce fighting in the island’s north in a drive to end a 25-year civil war, the military said Thursday.

The rebels _ who once commanded a de facto state across a large swath of the island’s north and east _ have been pushed into a small sliver of coastal land measuring just 8.4 square miles (21 square kilometers), on the northeastern coast.

In the latest fighting, the military said government troops had surrounded a group of rebels in an area less than half a square mile (1 square kilometer). A statement on the defense ministry’s Web site also said its forces had cut a supply route to the rebels in the Puthkkudiyirippu area.

It said the bodies of 13 rebels had also been recovered.

Accounts of the battles cannot be verified because independent journalists are barred from the war zone.

Although there has been heavy fighting in the same area for weeks, the government says it is close to crushing the rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa said earlier this week the military was exercising restraint dues to concerns about civilian casualties.

Tens of thousands of civilians are trapped in the war zone. The military says the rebels are holding them as human shields in a desperate attempt to avoid defeat. But the rebels say the people do not want to leave and have asked for their protection.

More than 23,000 civilians escaped last month, and the government estimates there are 30,000 to 40,000 still trapped.

A U.N. human rights official will visit Sri Lanka starting Thursday to discuss the welfare of those who have fled the war zone and are living in government-run camps.

Walter Kaelin, the representative for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the rights of internally displaced people, will meet government and aid officials and visit camps during his five-day visit, according to a U.N. statement.

The government announced Thursday that it has taken steps to improve conditions for the displaced people living in camps in line with a U.N. recommendation.

Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told reporters that 1,108 individuals from roughly 270 families who were scattered in the fighting and lived in separate camps have been reunited.

He said 277 elderly people have been sent to host relatives or friends while 100 others who were found to be alone were sent to homes run by Hindu and Christian clergy.

John Holmes, the top U.N. official for humanitarian affairs, had recommended these reforms during his recent visit to the island nation.

The United States has donated $15,000 worth of food aid to Sri Lanka, sufficient to feed 300,000 displaced people for four months, the U.S. Embassy in Colombo said in a statement.

The aid represents 21 percent of the total food aid called for this year by the World Food Program, the statement quoted USAID Mission Director Rebecca Cohn as saying.

The government says that it cannot allow the displaced people to go back to their villages until it has screened them for possible rebel infiltrators and the battle zones are demined.

The Tamil Tiger rebels have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who have faced decades of marginalization by successive governments controlled by ethnic Sinhalese. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.

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On the Net:

Sri Lanka’s defense ministry: http://www.defence.lk/english.asp

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