- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) - Sri Lanka’s president appealed to the cornered Tamil Tiger rebels to lay down their arms and surrender to save their lives and ensure the safety of tens of thousands of civilians trapped with them in a “no-fire” zone.

The appeal from President Mahinda Rajapaksa came as the military increased the rebel death toll Monday to at least 453 dead from three days of battles that pushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam into the narrow “no-fire” zone.

A total of 2,127 civilians, including 919 children, fled to government-controlled areas late Sunday after the military captured the last Tiger stronghold outside the “no-fire” zone, a military statement said.

“The only way out for the rebels is to save their lives, and if they lay down arms and surrender, it will save the lives of the trapped civilians too,” Rajapaksa was quoted Monday as saying by the government’s Web site.

Rajapaksa “resolutely denied any intentions for a truce and insisted that the Tigers must lay down arms and allow civilians a safe passage into liberated areas,” the military statement said.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said Monday that 453 rebel bodies from three days of fighting have been recovered, up from 420 a day earlier.

The “no-fire” zone where the rebels are likely to make their last stand in a civil war that has spanned 25 years was declared earlier this year by the government as a place for civilians caught in the fighting to go.

But now that the zone is all that remains of rebel territory, the focus turns to what will happen to civilians who fled there in hopes of reaching safety but find themselves caught again.

The “no-fire” zone measures just 7.7 square miles (20 square kilometers) of jungle and beach on the island’s northeast.

The U.N. estimates 150,000 to 190,000 people are trapped there, with dozens dying each day. The government says 30,000 to 40,000 still remain, and more than 23,000 civilians escaped last month.

Nanayakkara would not say what the military planned. “It’s going to be a different kind of operation, or it will be a rescue operation,” he said.

The military has accused the rebels of building fortifications inside the “no-fire” zone in preparation for a final showdown.

Accounts from the front line cannot be verified because independent journalists are barred from the war zone. But the United Nations and aid organizations earlier accused the rebels of firing artillery shells from the “no-fire” zone and holding civilians there as human shields. The rebels have denied the allegations.

The rebels, in turn, have accused the military of shelling the zone, an accusation the government denies.

The Tamil Tigers have fought since 1983 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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On the Net:

Ministry of Defense: https://www.defence.lk

Government of Sri Lanka: https://www.news.lk

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