Sri Lanka’s president predicted yesterday the army would totally defeat the Tamil Tigers rebels within “a few days,” as international pressure grew for a ceasefire to allow civilians to leave the last combat zone.
In a national day address, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse said the “shadows of terrorism have almost been wiped out” with the last remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cornered in a patch of jungle in the island’s northeast.
“I am confident that the Tigers will be completely defeated in a few days,” he said.
A massive military offensive over the past year has dismantled the Tigers’ mini-state in northern Sri Lanka, where the rebels have lost 98 percent of the territory once under their control.
As many as 250,000 civilians may be trapped in the area, UN agencies said.
And even as the government used the national day celebrations to trumpet its imminent military victory, foreign governments, including the island’s key backers, said it was time for the bloodshed to end.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her British counterpart David Miliband called on Tuesday for a “temporary no-fire period” to evacuate casualties and allow in relief.
“Both sides need to allow civilians and wounded to leave the conflict area and to grant access for humanitarian agencies,” they said in a joint statement after meeting in Washington.
A shell-hit hospital in the rebel-held district of Mullaittivu was targeted again on Tuesday evening, leaving three people dead and raising the number of people killed at the facility to 15 in four days.
The joint US-British statement came after the quartet of Sri Lanka’s international backers — the US, EU, Japan and Norway — called on the rebels to negotiate terms of surrender to avoid a bloodbath.
The quartet, known as “Co-Chairs,” had backed Oslo-led peace moves and in April 2003 co-hosted a donor conference that raised US$4.5 billion in support of efforts to end ethnic bloodletting in the South Asian nation.
“There remains probably only a short period of time before the LTTE loses control of all areas in the north,” they said in a statement. “The LTTE and the government should recognize that further loss of life of civilians and combatants will serve no cause”
There was no immediate reaction from the Tigers and the quartet said their efforts to persuade the LTTE to allow civilians to flee the fighting had failed.
Clinton and Miliband, meanwhile, insisted on the need for a “political resolution” to what is Asia’s longest running ethnic conflict.
Colombo — which pulled out of a Norwegian-brokered truce a year ago — has so far rejected the idea of any formal ceasefire, vowing to eliminate the Tigers, who have been waging an armed campaign for a separate Tamil state since 1972.
It has also accused the rebels of using civilians as human shields.
Sri Lanka’s army said on Tuesday that it had notched up further gains with the capture of an elaborate underground bunker complex believed to have been the home of the Tigers’ leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, as well as the rebels’ last jungle airstrip.