Sri Lankan soldiers have pushed deep into the sole remaining Tamil rebel enclave and killed 43 guerrillas, while nearly 82,000 civilians have fled the northern war zone within the last 72 hours, the military said yesterday.
Troops in recent months have ousted the rebels from all their former strongholds and hemmed them into what the government previously deemed a “no-fire” zone to protect civilians. But troops entered the 20km² zone this week to fight the remaining rebels and free civilians trapped there.
The military said it broke through a key rebel bunker in the coastal strip on Monday and that thousands of civilians have been fleeing the area since then. By Wednesday, 81,423 civilians had escaped, the military said.
Troops advanced deep into the zone, capturing part of it during fighting with insurgents on Monday and Tuesday, killing at least 43 rebels, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.
Tamil rebels are cornered into a stretch of about 8km, he said.
Army commandos attacked a car carrying rebels and killed four on Tuesday, while another four insurgents were killed by commandos in a separate attack, Nanayakkara said. Another 35 rebels were killed in separate attacks on Monday and Tuesday.
He said government forces also suffered casualties, but did not provide details.
“We suffered casualties because we are not using heavy and long-range weapons. We only use small weapons,” Nanayakkara said, accusing rebels of firing artillery shells.
It was impossible to get independent accounts from the war zone because journalists are barred from going there.
The UN, many countries and rights groups have expressed grave concern for remaining trapped civilians, fearing the government may launch an all-out assault soon, after giving the rebels a 24-hour ultimatum to surrender. The deadline expired on Tuesday with no response from the rebels.
The Red Cross said civilians could face a “catastrophic” situation under such a military assault.
The UN and others have called for a negotiated truce to allow civilians to leave the dwindling, rebel-held enclave.
But the government has refused to heed such calls, saying it is on the verge of crushing the rebels and putting an end to the quarter-century-long conflict.
The UN estimated more than 4,500 civilians have been killed in the past three months.
The rebels said more than 1,000 civilians died on Monday in a government raid, but the military denied the allegation.
Human rights groups say the rebels are holding many people in the enclave against their will and using them as human shields. Those groups have also accused the government of indiscriminate shelling in the region.
Both sides deny the allegations.
The number of fleeing civilians made it clear that the government had vastly underestimated how many people were caught in the fighting. While aid groups had estimated that about 100,000 civilians were trapped ahead of this week’s exodus, the government had said the figure was only about 40,000.
The US government released satellite images on Tuesday showing about 25,000 tents housing civilians squeezed into the last small strip controlled by the rebels. The State Department estimated about 125,000 people were in the conflict zone before the exodus.