- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) - Tens of thousands of civilians fled Sri Lanka’s northern war zone in a record exodus ahead of the government’s deadline Tuesday for separatist Tamil rebels to surrender, officials said.

More than 39,000 civilians arrived at military checkpoints on Monday, within hours of a military operation that saw Sri Lankan soldiers break through a barrier that the Tamil Tiger rebels had erected to defend their ever-shrinking slice of territory along the northern coast.

The number of fleeing civilians Monday was the largest in a single day, and that figure was expected to increase Tuesday as more people made their way out, said military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara.

The government issued a 24-hour deadline Monday for the cornered rebels to surrender or face a final assault _ a signal that the insurgents may be on the verge of total defeat after 25 years of rebellion.

The noon Tuesday (0630 GMT) deadline passed with no response from the guerrillas.

Rights groups reiterated their concern for civilians still stranded with the rebels.

Human Rights Watch, which said 50,000-100,000 remained stranded, warned that the government might launch a major attack following its warning to the rebels.

“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, roughly the number that crossed over on Monday alone.

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.

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.

“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 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 Asia’s longest-running civil war.

The rebels have fought for an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.

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