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UN calls for pause in Sri Lanka’s civil war

[AP, Tuesday, 7 April 2009 11:45 No Comment]

A U.N. human rights official called Tuesday for a pause in Sri Lanka’s civil war and urged the Tamil Tiger rebels to allow tens of thousands of trapped civilians to flee the fighting.


The civilians are in a precarious position because they are huddled in a narrow "no-fire" zone on the island’s northeast coast where the rebels are holed up after a series of military defeats at the hands of government troops.


More than 100,000 civilians are trapped and their lives are more at risk now that the rebels — the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — have been pushed into the zone, said Walter Kaelin, the representative of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the human rights of internally displaced persons.


"I urgently repeat my call to the LTTE to allow all civilians under its control to leave this zone and to seek safety elsewhere," Kaelin said in a statement at the end of a four-day visit to Sri Lanka.


He called for a pause in the fighting "to allow civilians to leave and humanitarian actors to provide life-saving relief to the remaining population," he said.


Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has repeatedly ruled out a cease-fire, saying that would allow the rebels to rearm and regroup, but the government has said it would continue to pause fighting — as it has done in the past — when is sees that civilians are on the move and in danger.


Rajapaksa has called on the rebels to surrender to ensure the safety of the civilians.


The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for a separate state for ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka’s north and east since 1983 in a war that has killed more than 70,000 people.


Kaelin’s estimate of 100,000 trapped civilians is down from previous U.N. figures of 150,000 to 190,000, with dozens dying each day. The government says only 30,000 to 40,000 people remain.


Kaelin called on the government to "scrupulously respect" the "no-fire" zone. The rebels have accused the military of shelling the zone, which the government denies. The zone measures just 7.7 square miles (20 square kilometers).


A string of victories by government forces has now pushed the rebels — who at their height controlled one-third of Sri Lanka — into the "no-fire" zone, which was declared by the government earlier this year as a place for civilians to shelter from the fighting.


Army chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka said he expected an exodus of trapped civilians "at any moment."


He was quoted as saying on a military Web site that a considerable number of middle-ranking Tiger leaders had been killed and the rebel group was "virtually paralyzed, unable to sustain (a) military onslaught."


The military has accused the rebels of building fortifications in the "no-fire" zone in preparation for a final showdown in a civil war that has spanned 25 years. The government has not said how it plans to flush out the remaining militants.

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