- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) - Thousands more civilians fled Sri Lanka’s northern war zone Tuesday, bringing the exodus of the past two days to nearly 50,000 as a government deadline passed for separatist Tamil rebels to surrender.

The 24-hour ultimatum expired at noon (0630 GMT) Tuesday without a response from the rebels, who are cornered in a sliver of coastal territory amid signs they are facing total defeat after a 25-year fight for an independent, ethnic Tamil homeland.

Rights groups say tens of thousands of civilians remained trapped in the rebel-held enclave and fear the civilian death toll could spike if the military launches a final assault.

On Monday, Sri Lankan soldiers broke through a barrier that the Tamil Tiger rebels had erected to defend their ever-shrinking slice of territory.

A total of 39,081 civilians fled the war zone Monday, the largest exodus in a single day, said military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara. At least 10,000 people crossed over Tuesday, a number that was expected to rise, he said.

Government forces in recent months have ousted the rebels from all their strongholds in the north and east of Sri Lanka and trapped them inside the designated safe zone measuring only 7.7 square miles (20 square kilometers).

More than 4,500 civilians have been killed in the past three months, according to U.N. estimates. The U.N. Children’s Fund said it fears for the safety of children still trapped in the war zone if fighting continues and the rebels refuse to allow people to leave.

“With this latest surge in fighting, our greatest fear is that the worst is yet to come,” said Daniel Toole, the agency’s South Asia director.

The government threatened Monday to launch a final assault if the Tamil Tigers failed to surrender. The rebels could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Human Rights Watch, which said between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians remained stranded, warned more will die if the government launches a major attack.

“Both sides need to show far greater concern for civilians, or many more civilians will die,” said Brad Adams, the New York-based group’s Asia director.

The International Crisis Group called the situation “a humanitarian tragedy” and urged the government to stop any fighting. The group also said the rebels need to allow civilians to leave, and that the government should establish “a humanitarian corridor” to let them out.

The number of fleeing civilians made it clear that the government had vastly underestimated how many people were caught in the fighting. While aid groups had estimated that about 100,000 civilians were trapped ahead of this week’s exodus, the government had cited about 40,000.

The government and human rights groups have accused the rebels of forcing civilians to stay in their territory to use as human shields, while the rebels have said remaining citizens are there by choice.

The U.N. and others have called for a negotiated truce to allow civilians to leave the dwindling, rebel-held enclave.

But the government has rejected such calls, saying it is on the verge of crushing the rebels and putting an end to the quarter-century-long conflict. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the years of violence.

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