Hundreds of civilians fled Sri Lanka’s northern war zone yesterday as the president promised the UN that the military would safeguard noncombatants while it pushed ahead with its offensive to crush the Tamil Tiger rebels.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s assurances came after Sri Lankan forces captured the rebels’ biggest sea base, effectively cutting off their main supply point and driving them closer to defeat, and the government rejected calls for a ceasefire that would allow civilians to escape the fighting.
Evidence has grown in recent days of mounting casualties among the estimated 250,000 civilians trapped in the shrinking sliver of land still controlled by the rebels. While reports from the sealed war zone were spotty, the top health official there said last week that 300 civilians had been killed, and the UN said at least 52 civilians were killed on Tuesday.
In a 15-minute phone conversation on Thursday with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Rajapaksa assured the UN chief that the offensive “would be carried out without harassment to the civilian population,” a statement from the president’s office said.
Meanwhile, the military said at least 320 civilians had crossed into the government-controlled area yesterday morning, and another 300 were waiting to cross. A total of 1,637 civilians crossed on Thursday, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said, adding that the government saw this as the start of a large exodus from the war zone.
Amnesty International called on both sides to declare a humanitarian ceasefire to allow civilians out and to let food, water and medical supplies be delivered to those who can’t leave.
“A quarter of a million people are suffering without adequate food and shelter while shells rain down upon them. Most of those who have managed to escape the conflict have not received adequate hospital treatment,” said Yolanda Foster, a researcher at the London-based rights group.