- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) - Sri Lankan troops rescued 5,000 civilians from the small sliver of territory in the war-ravaged north on Monday, the military said.

The government has designated the area a “no-fire” zone to protect what the United Nations estimates are 100,000 civilians trapped there.

The military, in recent months, have ousted the Tamil rebels from all their strongholds in an all-out offensive the government hopes will soon end the island’s 25-year-old civil war.

The remaining rebel fighters have been trapped inside the designated zone along with tens of thousands civilians for the last few weeks.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said soldiers advanced into the zone Monday and seized a fortification built by the rebels before rescuing the civilians. It is not possible to verify the military’s claims because the war zone is restricted to journalists.

The U.N. estimates that more than 100,000 civilians are trapped in the area, which measures only 7.7 square miles (20 square kilometers), and has voiced concern for their safety.

The government and aid groups have accused the rebels of holding civilians as human shields. Human rights groups have also accused the government of indiscriminately shelling populated areas and disregarding civilian safety. Both sides deny the allegations.

The government suspended its offensive for two days last week to allow civilians to leave, but only a few hundred departed.

Authorities have since rejected widespread international calls for a longer cease-fire to allow humanitarian workers to move the civilians to safety.

The U.N. estimates that some 4,500 noncombatants have been killed in the last three months amid fierce fighting as government forces close in on the rebels, aiming to bring a final end to the civil war.

The rebels have been fighting 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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