Fears grew yesterday for tens of thousands of civilians trapped by fighting in Sri Lanka as a government deadline expired for cornered Tamil Tiger rebels to allow non-combatants to leave the conflict zone.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse had given the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) until Saturday night to provide civilians safe passage out of the small jungle area in the northeast where rebel forces are staging a last stand against a massive, year-long military offensive.
“LTTE terrorists continued worsening the suffering of the thousands of entrapped civilians ... ignoring the 48-hour ultimatum served for their safe passage,” the defense ministry said.
It did not specify what action the military would now take, but army officials reported skirmishes and exchanges of gunfire in the 300km2 territory still under rebel control.
The UN said up to quarter of a million non-combatants are trapped in the area, while the Sri Lankan government says the figure is closer to 120,000.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has spearheaded a growing chorus of appeals by the international community for the warring parties to allow the civilians out.
The UN children’s agency UNICEF says tens of thousands of children are among those caught in the firing line, and that babies as young as 10 days old have been wounded in the fighting.
“We have clear evidence that children are being caught in the crossfire, and that children are being injured and killed,” said Daniel Toole, UNICEF’s regional director for South Asia.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said “hundreds” of civilians have been killed this month and “scores” wounded.
Sri Lanka’s government said that such numbers are grossly exaggerated and denies any targeting of civilian areas, while also accusing the Tigers of using non-combatants as a human shield.
The LTTE said the civilians are free to leave but prefer to stay under rebel protection.
The UN arranged an evacuation of some 350 wounded people and their immediate relatives from the combat zone last week and the Red Cross is in talks with both sides to organize a further evacuation.
UN officials said the negotiations were continuing for a second day yesterday.
The government has designated a 35km2 “safe zone” inside rebel-held territory where it says civilians can shelter without fear of military bombardment.