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UN says civilians killed as Sri Lanka battle rages

[Reuters, Monday, 26 January 2009 15:50 No Comment]

Sri Lankan troops surged forward on Monday after seizing the last big town held by Tamil Tiger rebels, aiming to strike a death blow to the 25-year separatist insurgency, the military said.

 

Underlining the threat facing thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone, the United Nations in Sri Lanka said dozens of people had been killed or wounded over the weekend in shelling from sources it could not identify.

 

On Sunday the army announced the capture of Mullaittivu, the northeastern port the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) seized in 1996 and turned into a major military operations and command centre.

 

That drove the Colombo Stock Exchange <.CSE> up 3.2 percent to a 10-week high, analysts said as fighting continued. [ID:nCOL425932]

 

"The troops are consolidating their positions in Mullaittivu today, and the other troops are moving towards Puthukudiruppu and others are fighting south of there," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said, referring to an LTTE-held village.

 

With the loss of Mullaittivu, the LTTE is now confined to 300 square km (186 square miles) of jungle in the Indian Ocean island’s northeast, down from 15,000 square km (5,792 sq miles) when the war re-ignited in 2006.

 

That leaves the LTTE — on U.S., EU and Indian terrorism lists — with a handful of bases and village scattered across the jungles from which they have fought since the war kicked off in earnest in 1983.

 

"The LTTE has been destroyed as a military force, but they still have terrorist capabilities," said John Drake, a security analyst with AKE Group in London.

He said hardcore fighters were likely to go underground, regroup and carry out renewed hit-and-run attacks, something which the army has said it expects and is ready to counter.

 

TRAPPED CIVILIANS

 

Aid agencies say about 230,000 civilians fleeing the fighting are trapped in the war zone and reports of casualties have been increasing. Rights groups and the government accuse the LTTE of keeping them as human shields and forcing them to fight.

 

The United Nations said members of its staff over the weekend saw some people killed by artillery fire. Last week, it said the LTTE had violated international law by barring local U.N. staff and their families from leaving on an aid convoy.

"Dozens of people were killed and wounded over the weekend by shelling. It was on the A-35 road outside Puthukudiruppu on the southern edge of the no-fire zone," U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss said. "The shelling was from indeterminate sources."

 

The LTTE could not be reached for comment.

 

Separately, the pro-rebel website www.TamilNet.com accused the military on Monday of hitting the 32 sq km (12 sq mile) no-fire zone set up last week by the army, killing 100 civilians and wounding hundreds. It cited unidentified medical sources.

 

The military said it had not fired into the safety zone since setting it up and had informed the LTTE through the Red Cross.

 

"We have never engaged this location," Nanayakkara said. "They have moved their guns there because they know this is the beginnning of the end."

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