Civilians flee last LTTE-held area in Sri Lanka


Colombo : Civilians continued Saturday to pour out of the last rebel-held area in northeastern Sri Lanka after security forces Saturday took the final strip of coast held by Tamil Tigers in the final phase of their offensive to defeat the guerrillas and end the more than 25-year conflict, military officials said.

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An estimated 5,000 civilians left Saturday, pushing up the total to have fled the area in two days to 17,500.

Military officials said that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters who have now been driven back to an area of less than a square kilometre in the northeast, were still putting up resistance.

Chief military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said that according to available information from ground troops senior LTTE members, including its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, remained in the rebel-held area.

Security forces took the last rebel-held coastline by advancing from different directions along the coast and linking up at Kariyalamullaivaikkal village, 395 km northeast of Colombo, the officials said.

Military officials involved in the operations said the final efforts to take full control of the LTTE-held area might take a couple of hours.

However, government sources said a final announcement of the rebels defeat was due to be made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is currently on a visit to Jordan and was due back in Sri Lanka Sunday morning.

Local police stations requested the public hoist the national flag to mark the capture of the rebel-held area as the operation nears end.

Meanwhile, civilians trapped in the war zone continued to flee by wading across a lagoon to enter government-controlled territory. Television pictures obtained by cameraman of the state run channels showed that civilians were ducking gunfire from rebels to escape into military controlled areas.

Only state run television journalists have been allowed into the area.

The government had earlier estimated that some 20,000 civilians were trapped in the area, but latest reports indicate that the figure may be higher than what had been estimated by the government. Before Friday’s exodus, the United Nations had estimated 50,000 civilians remained on rebel-held land.

More than 180,000 civilians who have fled the rebel-held area since January were being put up in government camps in the northern districts of Vavuniya and Jaffna with pledges from the government that they would be resettled in their villages as soon as possible.

The government and the UN have charged the rebels with holding the civilians in the conflict zone as human shields, while the LTTE has accused Colombo of firing on the area without regard to civilian safety. UN officials have warned that the war zone was becoming a “bloodbath” and “killing field”.

UN officials who spoke Friday to DPA in Geneva on condition of anonymity, gave “conservative” estimates that 7,000 to 8,000 people have been killed there since the end of January.

The LTTE and the government have blamed one another for the civilian deaths. Their claims could not be verified because the government has barred journalists and independent observers from the war zone.

The conflict, in which the LTTE has been fighting for an independent homeland for Sri Lankas minority Tamils, has killed more than 70,000 people.