Facing imminent battlefield defeat, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels have declared a unilateral ceasefire and called on the government to halt its offensive to spare the tens of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting.
The government rejected the appeal and accused the rebels of playing for time as the military stands poised to rout them and end the separatist war that has plagued this Indian Ocean island nation for a quarter century.
“This is a joke,” Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said of the rebels’ truce offer.
The cease-fire declaration came amid a chorus of international appeals for a pause in the fighting to allow the estimated 50,000 ethnic Tamil civilians remaining in the war zone to escape.
The government and aid groups accuse the rebels of holding the civilians hostage to blunt the government offensive, a charge the rebels deny.
Reports from the region have detailed growing cases of starvation and civilian casualties in recent days.
The United Nations, which said nearly 6,500 civilians have been killed over the past three months, has sent its top humanitarian official on an emergency mission to Sri Lanka to push for a ceasefire.
John Holmes met yesterday with senior government officials to underscore “the urgent need for humanitarian access by the UN to the combat zone,” UN spokesman Gordon Weiss said.
The government barred aid workers from the region when the fighting escalated in September.
Mr Holmes was to head today to the northern region of Vavuniya to inspect displacement camps and hospitals that have been overwhelmed by the more than 100,000 civilians who fled the war zone over the past week.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband will also visit Sri Lanka with his French and Swedish counterparts on Wednesday to try to mediate on the conflict, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office in London.