Calls for Sri Lanka truce as fears mount for trapped civilians

COLOMBO (AFP) — Calls mounted Friday for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka amid growing fears for an estimated quarter of a million civilians trapped by fierce fighting between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels.

A group of international relief organisations, including UN agencies, urged the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to allow civilians to leave areas under their control, and the government to stop blocking international aid.

“We call upon the LTTE to allow full freedom of movement to all civilians, and to allow safe passage for those wishing to leave the conflict area,” the aid agencies said.

“We ask the government to provide civilians with information on safe routes out of the conflict zone, with internationally assisted humanitarian corridors that would provide safety measures for civilians coming out of the conflict zone seeking protection.”

The European Union’s Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel called for a halt in the war — which the Sri Lankan government says it is now on the verge of winning.

“This is an escalating humanitarian catastrophe. We are extremely worried about the terrible situation facing people trapped in the fighting,” Michel said in Brussels.

He said that many civilians had died and hundreds of wounded people were without adequate medical care.

The Sri Lankan government pulled out of a Norwegian-brokered truce with the rebels a year ago, and has since set about trying to dismantle the LTTE’s northern mini-state.

Following months of heavy fighting, government troops have captured the LTTE’s political capital of Kilinochchi and, last weekend, the rebels’ main military base of Mullaittivu on the northeast coast.

Fighting is now concentrated around a 300 square kilometre (110 square mile) patch of territory still with the rebels.

The Sri Lankan government has accused the LTTE of using civilians as human shields, and bringing civilians with them each time they are forced to withdraw.

“I urge the LTTE, within the next 48 hours, to allow free movement of civilians to ensure their safety and security,” the island’s President Mahinda Rajapakse said in a statement late Thursday.

“For all those civilians, I assure a safe passage to a secure environment,” he said, attempting to counter the rebels’ argument that Tamil civilians are mistreated when crossing into areas controlled by the ethnic Sinhalese-dominated army.

Government forces were meanwhile keeping up their attacks against the Tigers and Sri Lanka’s navy on Friday sank a suspected Tiger suicide boat off the island’s north-eastern coast, a military official said.

The navy detected the explosives-laden LTTE boat off the coast of Mullaittivu district, the official said.

It exploded in a fireball, the official said, adding that “there were at least two people aboard when it was attacked”.

The guerrillas still have a 30-kilometre (18-mile) stretch of coastline in the district where government forces are leading what the defence ministry says is the final phase of their offensive.

On Thursday, troops said they found a submarine-type craft and three other boats that could have been used in suicide attacks during searches in the district of Mullaittivu.

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