- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 25, 2009

PUTTUMATTALAN, Sri Lanka | Hundreds of people who fled intense fighting in Sri Lanka’s war zone were awaiting evacuation from this tiny coastal village Friday as the U.N. reported that nearly 6,500 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed in the last three months.

Speaking to journalists on a rare visit to the edge of the war zone, civilians told of Tamil Tiger rebels using them as human shields.

Conditions “were terrible as we did not have anything to eat. We thought it’s better to flee,” said Rajeshwari, 40, who gave only her first name.

She and other civilians moved with the retreating rebels for months as the advancing army chipped away at the insurgents’ territory, trying to end the nation’s quarter-century of civil strife.

The rebels promised the civilians protection, Rajeshwari said. “But they did not keep the promise.”

The U.N. estimates that 50,000 people were still trapped in the war zone after more than 100,000 fled earlier this week, spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said Friday. Nearly 1,000 awaited evacuation Friday.

Dr. Thangamuttu Sathyamurthi, a top government health official in the war zone, said there was a severe shortage of food and medicine in the area and people were dying of starvation.

The ongoing violence was so intense that many people were abandoning their dying relatives to flee the fighting, he said.

Doctors Without Borders, a medical relief group, said the civilians pouring out of the conflict zone included large numbers of people with blast, mine and gunshot wounds.

The rebels have denied accusations they used civilians as human shields.

At least 6,432 civilians have been killed in the intense fighting over the past three months and 13,946 wounded, according to a private U.N. document circulated among diplomatic missions in Sri Lanka in recent days. A foreign diplomat gave a copy to the Associated Press on Friday.

The Sri Lankan military on Friday gave journalists rare access to Puttumattalan, which until earlier this week was inside the section of rebel territory designated as a “no-fire” zone.

The area around the village is full of coconut trees, but most of their leafy tops had been blown off. Roads in the region were nearly deserted except for military vehicles and lines of damaged or destroyed houses. No building was intact.

Neighboring India, under pressure from its own Tamil population in the midst of a national election, sent National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon to Sri Lanka on Friday to meet with President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Brig. Shavendra Silva, a top commander in the conflict zone, said his troops were on the verge of crushing the remaining rebels and ending the 25-year civil war. He said intelligence reports indicated reclusive rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and other top Tamil Tiger leaders remain holed up there.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would send humanitarian experts to Sri Lanka to monitor the situation. The Security Council passed a statement in support of his decision on Friday.

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