- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) - Sri Lankan forces attacked Tamil guerrillas with mortar fire, artillery and heavy machine guns Wednesday following a two-day cease-fire aimed at letting civilians flee the war zone, a pro-rebel Web site reported. The government said it had only launched a “rescue mission.”

The reported fighting could mark the start of planned final assault aimed at destroying the Tamil Tigers and ending this Indian Ocean island nation’s 25-year-old civil war. However, tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped in the war zone, and diplomats and human rights groups have called on both sides to exercise restraint.

The government had announced a unilateral cease-fire Monday and Tuesday and asked civilians trapped inside the war zone to move out, but only a few hundred left. The government says the rebels are preventing the civilians from escaping, while the rebels say the civilians don’t want to leave.

The TamilNet Web site said the government launched a large-scale attack for three hours Wednesday morning near a “no-fire zone” intended as a refuge for the civilians in the area. Families huddled in bunkers for safety, but as many as 180 civilians were killed in the fighting, the Web site said.

The top government health official in the war zone, Dr. Thurairaja Varatharajah, said only six bodies and 68 civilians suffering bullet wounds were brought to the makeshift hospital that he runs out of a school since Tuesday night. He said the sound of gunfire resumed during the night after the cease-fire ended.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said government soldiers had not launched any new offensives and were only observing the rebels’ activities.

“We cannot just go there because of the heavy civilian presence,” he said.

Government official Keheliya Rambukwella said that forces have begun a “rescue mission” to free the trapped civilians rather than a military offensive.

“This is more of a rescue operation; there is no question of an onslaught,” he said.

Confirmation of the fighting was not possible because the government bars journalists and aid workers from the war zone.

The rebels said Tuesday that the cease-fire, declared by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to mark the Sri Lankan New Year, was an “act of hoodwinking” and that only an internationally supervised truce would be effective.

Despite international appeals, the government said it had no intentions of extending the cease-fire.

The U.N. says more than 100,000 people are trapped along with the cornered guerrillas in the government-declared “no-fire” zone measuring just 7.7 square miles (20 square kilometers).

A series of battlefield victories in the past six months have pushed the Tamil Tigers _ who once ran a de facto state in the north and east of the Indian Ocean island nation _ into a small strip of land in the north. The government has rejected several calls for a permanent cease-fire, saying the military will finish off the insurgency soon.

Varatharajah said cases of malnutrition among children in the conflict area were rapidly increasing. With little food for themselves, new mothers were not producing enough breast milk to feed their babies, and other infants were suffering when their lactating mothers were killed or badly injured in the fighting, he said.

The area only had enough infant formula to feed 25 percent of the affected children, he said, appealing for urgent supplies of formula to be sent to the region.

The rebels have been fighting for 25 years 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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