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Fears for civilians as Sri Lanka troops, Tigers fight News

[Reuters, Tuesday, 27 January 2009 08:02 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s military battled on Tuesday to encircle the last territory held by the separatist Tamil Tigers, as fears grew over the safety of hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the war zone.


The army on Sunday seized the last major town the rebels controlled, the northeastern port of Mullaittivu, and aims to strike a death blow to an insurgency that at 25 years is one of Asia’s longest-running.


Fighting continued on Tuesday two days after the capture and journalists on a military guided field tour headed to Mullaittivu could hear heavy weapons fire from the distance.


"Mortar fire, indirect fire, close quarter battles are going on in 1.5 km (0.9321 miles) from Puthukkudiyiruppu," said Brigadier Nanda Udawatte, referring to a town in the vicinity.


Udawatte led the capture of Mullaittivu on Sunday.


The artillery fire could be heard from the army’s 59th Division headquarters in Kumulamunai in northeastern Sri Lanka.


That division had battled just over one year in the government’s rollback of the rebels, in which the capture of Mullaittivu was the latest victory.


"Most of the bodies of terrorists we found had cyanide capsules which had not been used," said Udawatte, referring to the rebels practice of carrying cyanide to avoid being taken alive.


Both sides increasingly have been trading charges over casualties among the 230,000 people aid agencies say are caught between the opponents in just 300 square km (186 square miles) of jungle in the Indian Ocean island’s northeast.


The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) no longer control any major town and are confined to a handful of jungle bases and villages.


That is raising questions as to whether the rebels’ days as a conventional fighting force are over.

The Tigers have vowed they will not surrender and Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran in his annual speech last year said the army was "in a dreamland" if it thought it would win.


Human rights watchdogs and the government accuse the LTTE — designated a terrorist group by India, the United States and the European Union — of keeping civilians in its territory to force them to act as fighters, battlefield laborers or human shields.


The Tigers, with most communication in the war zone cut off, could not be reached for comment. They have denied the allegations in the past.


On Monday, 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.


The pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com said there were fears as many as 300 had been killed in shelling on Monday inside a no-fire zone the military announced last week, quoting what it said were eyewitnesses.


"Unattended bodies and injured people unable to move are lying around everywhere, while a remaining doctor fled," the website said.


The military has repeatedly denied firing into the no-fire zone, while accusing the rebels of moving armaments into the area and shooting into the safe zone soon after the air force dropped leaflets urging people to go there.


"A few hours after the aerial information mission, panicking terrorists jumped into action and started firing on to those village areas, intending to stall intended civil movement," an army statement said.

It is impossible to get a clear picture of what is happening inside the combat zone, since independent media are rarely permitted there by either side.

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