- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) - Sri Lanka’s Tamil rebels said Tuesday that 1,000 civilians died in a government raid on their territory that the military says freed thousands of noncombatants from the war zone. The military denied the accusation.

Government forces say they rescued thousands of civilians on Monday after they broke through a barrier built by the rebels to protect their territory. By Tuesday evening, the military said 52,000 had escaped.

Thousands of civilians also took to the sea, packing onto to small boats to flee the coastal strip of land that the military has backed the rebels into. Naval boats patrolled the waters, pulling those fleeing aboard their own vessels before transporting them to camps, where Tamils who have escaped the war are being held. On Monday, more than 2,000 people in about 100 boats were picked up.

But as troops have pushed the rebels into an ever-shrinking sliver of territory, both sides have accused the other of endangering civilians.

Rights groups say the rebels are holding many against their will to use as human shields. But those groups have also accused the government of indiscriminate shelling in the tightly packed region in its bid to end the 25-year war. Both sides deny the allegations against them.

It is not possible to obtain independent accounts of the situation because the war zone is restricted to journalists.

The U.N. estimated that more than 4,500 civilians have been killed in the past three months, and several humanitarian groups warned Tuesday that any government efforts to launch an assault into the densely populated rebel area would result in a dramatic increase in casualties.

The rebels said in an e-mailed statement that more than 1,000 civilians died in the government’s raid Monday. It said nearly 2,300 were wounded.

“And today a situation of bloodbath is prevailing,” the statement said.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara denied the allegation, adding that only 17 civilians were killed Monday and they died in rebels suicide bombing.

“Our troops are rescuing the trapped civilians. It’s the LTTE (rebels) which is preventing civilians from fleeing,” Nanayakkara said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was unable to confirm the rebels’ claim.

But “every rocket that is fired into the zone is wounding or killing civilians,” said the agency’s operations director Pierre Kraehenbuehl.

A total of 39,081 civilians fled the war zone Monday, the largest exodus in a single day according to Nanayakkara. At least 13,000 people crossed over Tuesday, he said, but the stream was continuing.

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 said the figure was about 40,000.

Encouraged by the exodus, the government on Monday asked the rebels to surrender within 24 hours, warning of a final assault if they failed. The ultimatum expired at noon (0630 GMT) Tuesday without a response from the rebels.

Kraehenbuehl, of the ICRC, warned that any assault could dramatically increase the number of civilian deaths.

“The situation is nothing short of catastrophic,” he said. “I cannot remember … as much concentrated pain and exposure to violence with very, very minimal possibilities to reach anywhere that could be called safe.”

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.

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

But the government has refused to heed such calls, saying it is on the verge of crushing the rebels and putting an end to the quarter-century-long conflict.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa rejected a latest call by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for a fighting pause, his office said Tuesday.

The president’s office said in a statement that Rajapaksa deemed a pause “unnecessary” considering the “unexpected exodus of civilians” when the two leader’s had a telephone conversation Monday.

The rebels have fought since 1983 for an independent state for Sri Lanka’s ethnic minority Tamils. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the years of violence.


Associated Press writers Bharatha Mallawarachi in Colombo and Eliane Engeler in Geneva contributed to this report.

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