- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – A U.N. human rights expert warned Tuesday of a bloodbath in Sri Lanka unless government and rebel forces can stop fighting for long enough to allow tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone to flee.

The civilians are in a precarious position, huddled in a narrow “no-fire” zone on the island's northeast coast where the rebels are holed up after a series of military defeats at the hands of government troops.

More than 100,000 civilians are trapped and their lives are more at risk now that the rebels – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – have been cornered in the zone, said Walter Kaelin, an independent human rights expert appointed representative of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the human rights of internally displaced persons.

“It's absolutely necessary to avoid a bloodbath. If the Sri Lankan army would try to go into there, if the LTTE would not be ready to let these civilians go, then we'll end up with a bloodbath, and this must by all means be avoided,” Kaelin told Geneva-based radio station WRS.

In a statement issued at the end of a four-day visit to Sri Lanka, Kaelin said he urgently called on the rebel movement – which has been accused of using Tamil civilians in the war zone as human shields – “to allow all civilians under its control to leave.”

He also urged both sides in the conflict to pause the fighting “to allow civilians to leave” and allow aid workers “to provide life-saving relief to the remaining population.”

Kaelin called on the government to “scrupulously respect” the “no-fire” zone. The rebels have accused the military of shelling the zone, which the government denies. The zone measures just 7.7 square miles (20 square kilometers).

The government said it would hold its fire when civilians were on the move and in danger – as it has in the past.

“It has never been our policy to sacrifice civilian lives for military gain,” Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said in response to Kaelin's comments.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has repeatedly ruled out a cease-fire, saying that would allow the rebels to rearm and regroup. He has urged the rebels to surrender to ensure civilian safety.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for a separate state for ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka's north and east since 1983 in a war that has killed more than 70,000 people.

Protesters have also demanded an end to the fighting in demonstrations in other countries. In London on Tuesday, police said they arrested four people after hundreds of Tamil protesters blocked a major bridge beside Parliament.

Kaelin's estimate of 100,000 trapped civilians is down from previous U.N. figures of 150,000 to 190,000, with dozens dying each day. The government says only 30,000 to 40,000 people remain.

Army chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka said he expected an exodus of trapped civilians “at any moment.”

He was quoted as saying on a military Web site that a considerable number of middle-ranking Tamil Tiger leaders had been killed and that the rebel group was “virtually paralyzed, unable to sustain (a) military onslaught.”

Accounts from the front line cannot be verified because independent journalists are barred from the war zone.

Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.

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