Sri Lanka yesterday said combat with heavy weapons was over in a last pocket of territory held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and they were shifting their focus to rescuing civilians trapped there.
The announcement came a day after the government dismissed an attempt to declare a truce by the rebels, now cornered in less than 10km² of coastline by a military juggernaut aiming to end a war that started in 1983.
“Combat operations have reached their conclusion,” a statement from Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office said.
“Our security forces have been instructed to end the use of heavy calibre guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons which could cause civilian casualties,” it said.
Analysts said it appeared designed to mollify international diplomatic pressure to call a ceasefire, which Sri Lanka has ruled out given the LTTE’s history of using them to rearm and their rejection of two government truce offers so far this year.
“Our security forces will confine their attempts to rescuing civilians who are held hostage and give foremost priority to saving civilians,” the statement from Rajapaksa’s office said.
For weeks, the military has said it was only using small arms in order to protect civilians in what it has dubbed the largest hostage rescue operation in the world.
“I don’t see any substantial change. This would probably be in deference in to international opinion,” said Colonel R. Hariharan, who was head of military intelligence for the Indian army during its 1987 to 1990 peacekeeping mission in Sri Lanka.
“What is there to stop anyway? That stage is gone. I don’t think anybody will take it very seriously,” he said.
Last-minute diplomatic efforts have borne little fruit, with the LTTE refusing to release tens of thousands of non-combatants it is holding inside the war zone, and the government saying the Tigers must surrender or be destroyed.
The foreign ministers of Britain, France and Sweden were due to fly in tomorrow, Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement on Sunday.
The Sri Lankan military has for weeks denied accusations from the LTTE, the UN and others that it was shelling the area, which until last week had been an army-declared no-fire zone where tens of thousands of civilians were trapped.
The pro-rebel Web site TamilNet yesterday reported that Sri Lankan troops had been attacking the combat zone.
“Sri Lanka Army began firing from all points along the north, west and south of safe-zone in the early hours of Monday,” TamilNet said, without naming its sources.
Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said that operations were moving forward: “There may be fighting but only with small arms, we are not using heavy weapons.”
The LTTE denies numerous witness reports that it has been keeping civilians in the combat zone by force.
More than 113,000 have fled since troops blew up an earth barricade a week ago.
The UN’s top aid official, John Holmes, flew into northern Sri Lanka yesterday to assess the state of the nearly 200,000 people who have fled Sri Lanka’s war this year.
The UN and other aid groups have warned that the sudden exodus is threatening to overwhelm the existing facilities to care for those displaced, particularly the wounded.