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Civilians in war zone to be rescued in 48 hours: Sri Lankan president


Colombo : Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has said that all civilians caught in fighting in a shrinking strip of land held by Tamil separatist rebels in northeast Sri Lanka would be rescued in the next 48 hours, the Government Information Department said Friday.

Rajapaksa made the declaration Thursday night while speaking to Sri Lankans living in Jordan during an official visit to the country, the department said.

His comment came as thousands of civilians were moving across a lagoon toward a military-controlled area, and troops were entering the last rebel-held areas in the country amid resistance from the LTTE.

A reporter for state-run Sri Lanka Rupavahini television stationed on the frontline with troops in the coastal area of the Mullaitivu district, 395 km northeast of Colombo, said in a report Friday that he could see large explosions in the rebel-controlled area with huge volumes of smoke rising into the sky.

Journalist Saman Kumara Ramawickrema said the explosions were coming from the centre of the rebel-held area where the LTTE leadership is believed to be.

“This could be that the terrorists are blowing up some of their own heavy military hardware as they had done Thursday in some of the coastal area,” he said.

He said that according to military intelligence, the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, along with his deputy, known as Pottu Amman, were still in the area.

Independent confirmation of the report was not possible as the government has barred other journalists and independent observers from the war zone.

On Thursday, an estimated 5,000 civilians fled the rebel-controlled area by crossed a shallow lagoon, and more civilians were coming out Friday, military officials said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has chartered a ship to reach the area to rescue injured civilians, but the ship failed to reach the location because of heavy fighting between troops and rebels.

Since January this year, more than 180,000 civilians have been rescued or have fled the rebel-controlled area and are living in camps set up by the government in the northern part of the country.

Military officials said they were on the final phase of a military offensive launched in August 2006 to crush the LTTE, which has been fighting for an independent homeland for the minority Tamils for more than 25 years.