The Sri Lankan military vowed yesterday to quickly wipe out the Tamil Tigers after the rebels suffered at least 453 dead and were pushed into a small “no-fire” zone crowded with tens of thousands of civilians.
A total of 2,127 civilians, including 919 children, fled to government-controlled areas late on Sunday after the military captured the last stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that was outside of the “no-fire” zone, a military statement said.
“LTTE’s days numbered as troops [the] make final move to free civilian hostages,” a second statement said on the military’s Web site.
Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said yesterday that 453 rebel bodies from three days of fighting have been recovered, up from 420 a day earlier.
The “no-fire” zone where the rebels are likely to make their last stand in a civil war that has spanned 25 years was declared earlier this year by the government as a place for civilians caught in the fighting to go.
But now that the zone is all that remains of rebel territory, the focus turns to what will happen to civilians who fled there in the hope of reaching safety, but find themselves caught again.
The “no-fire” zone measures just 20km² of jungle and beach on the island’s northeast.
The UN estimates 150,000 to 190,000 people are trapped there, with dozens dying each day. The government said 30,000 to 40,000 still remained and more than 23,000 civilians escaped last month.
The government has rejected rebel calls for a ceasefire but has said it would pause fighting — as it has done in the past — to allow civilians to leave.
Nanayakkara would not say what the military planned.
“It’s going to be a different kind of operation, or it will be a rescue operation,” he said.
The military has accused the rebels of building fortifications inside the “no-fire” zone in preparation for a final showdown.
The UN and aid organizations earlier accused the rebels of firing artillery shells from the “no-fire” zone and holding civilians there as human shields. The rebels have denied the allegations.
The rebels in turn have accused the military of shelling the zone, an accusation the government denies.
The Tamil Tigers have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who have faced decades of marginalization by successive governments controlled by ethnic Sinhalese. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.
Government forces have said for months they are in a final push to defeat the rebels and end the war after a string of major victories in which the rebel administrative capital and main bases were captured.