The Red Cross ferried 150 foreigners to safety from the besieged Jaffna peninsula yesterday as the Sri Lankan military claimed it killed 12 Tamil Tigers when repulsing a rebel attack on an army position.
The ferry arrived at the port of Trincomalee in the country's northeast in the early hours after many aid agencies pulled out foreign staff amid ongoing clashes between rebels and security forces.
The 152 passengers included two locals needing medical care, people visiting families in the disputed northeast and aid workers on tsunami-related projects.
Charity workers said it was unclear when they could return to help tens of thousands who have fled fierce fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the security forces.
More than 40,000 have fled their homes in the Jaffna peninsula alone where 650 people died in 11 days of fierce fighting this month that the military claimed was a rebel push to take control of the area.
"We have to watch the situation because there are big problems. We don't know how long this will go on for," said Kanagaratanam Theiva, tsunami manager for Caritas Sri Lanka, which has pulled out foreign workers from most of the northeast.
"Unfortunately most of the tsunami victims are in the northeast and now they're becoming victims again of this recent violence. We're going through the disaster cycle again and we'll have to go back to relief work," the aid worker said.
The peninsula is blocked by road from the rest of the island by Tiger-held territory and supplies for the population have to be brought in by boat.
The Red Cross said that negotiations were continuing to try to send more boats to take the rest of the estimated 500 foreigners out of the area where food, water and medical supplies were running low.
"We're still in discussions ... but so far we cannot confirm any further operations," Red Cross spokesman Davide Vignati said.
An aid ship arrived at the peninsula last week with 1,500 tonnes of food to ease the crisis, but clashes continued on the frontlines with six soldiers killed on Saturday by a device left behind by rebels.
Sporadic fighting continued elsewhere on the island. Twelve rebels were killed during a battle between the two sides in the northeastern Batticaloa district, said a defense ministry spokesman, who declined to be named.
The military fired back after a group of about 25 rebels fired mortars, injuring seven soldiers, as they tried to break into government-held territory.
"They were trying to encroach into our area. They fired mortars and we countered with heavy weapons," the spokesman said.
"Twelve LTTE were killed, 20 were injured. The bodies have probably been taken away," he said.
Both sides have been accused of exaggerating the casualty figures of the other side.