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Sri Lanka deadline for civilian safe passage ends

[AP, Sunday, 1 February 2009 10:39 No Comment]

A Sri Lankan government deadline for Tamil Tiger rebels to let civilians leave the northern conflict zone has ended with only about a hundred reaching safe areas. The government is accusing the insurgents of holding the civilians as human shields.

 

According to the Red Cross, some 250,000 civilians are trapped in the 115-square mile (300-square kilometer) area where the rebels have been boxed in by advancing troops. The government puts the number at about 120,000.

 

The Defense Ministry said in a statement that more than 100 civilians including 16 children fled the war zone and "sought protection with security forces" on Saturday.

 

They included 63 people who arrived in Visuamadu town, while 43 others made their way in two boats across the choppy waters off Mullaittivu toward Pulmoddai town, it said.

 

"We gave a chance to the Tigers to release the civilians during the 48 hours but the terrorists are not allowing innocent civilians to get out. They are using them as human shields," said Lakshman Hulugalla, a government spokesman.

 

The Tigers deny holding civilians and say the military offensive is preventing them from fleeing.

The claims could not be independently verified because the government has banned most journalists and aid workers from traveling to the area.

 

On Saturday, the Sri Lankan military claimed it destroyed an explosives-laden rebel boat heading on an apparent suicide mission toward a naval blockade along the coast.

 

It gave no other details of the Friday incident, and the rebels did not immediately respond to the claim.

The military believes it is now close to destroying the Tigers, who have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for ethnic minority Tamils in the north and the east.

 

On Thursday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa urged the rebels to let civilians leave the conflict zone by Saturday and guaranteed safe passage to all noncombatants. Although the 48-hour period did not amount to a cease-fire, the government was expected to step up its offensive starting Sunday, which aid workers said would lead to more civilian casualties.

 

There are no clear figures for how many people have died in the recent fighting around Mullaittivu. The government denies reports that more than 300 civilians have been killed.

 

Human rights groups accuse the rebels of holding the civilians hostage and the military of launching heavy attacks in civilian-filled areas, including a government-declared "safe zone."

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