Thousands more flee Sri Lankan onslaught

Thousands more civilians fled Sri Lanka’s war zone today as troops pushed deeper into the Tamil Tiger rebels’ sliver of remaining territory.

The UN and humanitarian groups called for an immediate end to the fighting so more civilians could escape. Over the past three days, the military says more than 80,000 have fled after forces broke through a key rebel embankment protecting their territory.

The government has ignored peace calls, saying for weeks it was on the verge of crushing the rebels as troops removed them from their former strongholds and hemmed them into a tiny strip of coastal land.

The government had previously declared the area a “no fire” zone to protect civilians. But troops after breaking through the embankment, entered the zone and captured part of it during fighting on Monday and yesterday. At least 43 rebels were killed, a military spokesman said.

With this week’s advances, the area under rebel control has shrunk to just five miles along the north-eastern coast, he said.

The rebels were still resisting the army’s advance.

The UN estimates that more than 4,500 civilians have been killed in the past three months and has called for a negotiated truce to allow others to leave the shrinking rebel-held enclave.

Yesterday the rebels accused the government of killing 1,000 civilians in their latest offensive – a charge the military denies. In the past, humanitarian groups have said troops shelled the densely populated area.

The United Nations, many countries and human rights groups have expressed grave concerns for the remaining trapped civilians, fearing the government may launch an all-out assault soon after giving the rebels a 24-hour ultimatum to surrender. The deadline expired yesterday with no response.

The Red Cross said civilians could face a “catastrophic” situation under such a military assault.

Amnesty International urged the government and rebels to “take all necessary measures immediately to prevent unlawful killing of civilians and ... fully comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law.”

“The security of civilians trapped between Sri Lankan forces and the Tamil Tigers is paramount,” said a spokeswoman.

Human rights groups accuse the rebels of holding civilians against their will for use as human shields, and accuse the government of indiscriminate shelling in the region. Both sides deny the allegations.

The number of fleeing civilians this week have 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 said the figure was only about 40,000.

The rebels have been fighting to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who have faced decades of marginalisation by successive governments controlled by ethnic Sinhalese. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.

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