Hundreds awaiting evacuation in Sri Lanka

HUNDREDS who fled intense fighting in Sri Lanka’s war zone were awaiting evacuation from this tiny coastal village yesterday as the UN reported that nearly 6,500 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed in the past 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 Rajeshwarai, 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, Rajeshwarai said. “But they did not keep the promise.”

The UN estimates that 50,000 people are still trapped in the war zone after more than 100,000 fled earlier this week, spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said yesterday.

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

The rebels have denied using civilians as human shields.

At least 6,432 civilians have been killed over the past three months and 13,946 wounded, according to a private UN document circulated among diplomatic missions in Sri Lanka in recent days.

The UN has declined to publicly release its casualty figures.

Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona said the government took special care to avoid civilian casualties, and that many of those killed were combatants dressed in civilian clothing.

The Sri Lankan military yesterday gave journalists rare access to Puttumattalan, which until earlier this week fell inside a previously declared “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 with damaged or destroyed houses. No building was intact.

Neighbouring India, under pressure from its own Tamil population in the midst of a national election, sent National Security Adviser MK Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon to Sri Lanka yesterday to push for a ceasefire. The officials met with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, but details of the meeting were not immediately available.

“All killing must stop. There must be an immediate cessation of all hostilities,” external affairs ministry spokesman Vishu Prakash said in a statement.

But media minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena said the government had no plans for a ceasefire. “The military operations will continue to free the remaining civilians,” he said.

Brig Shavendra Silva, a top commander in the conflict zone, said his troops were on the verge of crushing the remaining rebels huddled along with the trapped civilians in the tiny coastal strip the Tamil Tigers still control.

Silva also said intelligence reports indicated reclusive rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and other top Tamil Tiger officials remain holed up there.


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