- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) - More than 23,000 civilians escaped last month from a war zone in Sri Lanka’s north, where the military appears close to crushing the Tamil Tiger rebels, the government said Wednesday.

Tens of thousands of civilians have been trapped by the fighting as the military has rolled up a series of battlefield victories and pushed the rebels into a small sliver of beach and land _ measuring just 8.4 square miles (21 square kilometers) _ on the northeast coast.

The 23,606 who fled in March was down from the nearly 33,000 who escaped in February, but the fighting last month was confined to a smaller area and it was not as easy to flee.

The rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have denied accusations that they are holding the people as human shields and have fired on them to stop them from fleeing.

Military spokesman Udaya Nanayakkara told a news conference that the fighting in some cases was just 400 yards (meters) from the edge of a government-declared “no-fire” zone, which takes up most of the war zone.

“Troops are operating close to the safe zone,” he told a news conference. Nanayakkara said more than 62,000 people have now fled the fighting.

Defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella estimated there were 30,000 to 40,000 civilians still trapped in the area.

Rambukwella repeated comments by President Mahinda Rajapaksa rejecting calls for a cease-fire, saying it would give the rebels a chance to rearm and regroup.

“It is not something that is possible,” he said.

Still, Rambukwella said the military would pause its attacks when there were worries about civilian casualties. He said the military had done that numerous times in the last several months.

The rebels deny they are on the brink of defeat, but have also appealed for a cease-fire.

The government has been saying for months the war would end soon, but Rajapaksa said recent delays were because the military was exercising restraint over worries about civilian casualties.

Nanayakkara said separately that the eldest son of rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was wounded in a recent battle. He said it was not known how seriously Charles Anthony, 24, was hurt.

Verification of the competing claims was not possible because independent journalists are not allowed into the conflict area. Direct contact with the rebels in the north is also no longer possible because communications links have been cut.

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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