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Sri Lanka says 35,000 civilians flee LTTE areas

[AFP, Monday, 20 April 2009 10:34 No Comment]

More than 35,000 civilians managed to flee the last area controlled by Sri Lanka‘s Tamil Tigers on Monday, President Mahinda Rajapakse said, adding that the rebels’ "complete defeat" was imminent.


Showing AFP aerial video from a military spy plane over the tiny area where the Tigers are staging a last stand, Rajapakse said 35,000 non-combatants had crossed the lines into government-held territory since early Monday morning.


"The footage clearly shows that the people are defying the rebels and escaping. They are running to safety," the president said.


The government has accused the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of using trapped civilians as a human shield, and the president suggested that their escape removed a final obstacle to an all-out military assault.


"The process of the complete defeat of the LTTE has just begun," he told AFP. "It is now all over for the Tigers."


The Sri Lankan military said the Tigers killed 17 civilians Monday, in a reported suicide bombing aimed at preventing them escaping.


The Defence Ministry’s official website said women and children were among the dead.


Rajapakse said he was aware of two blasts in the area that "might have been" the work of suicide bombers.


The United Nations says up to 100,000 civilians are trapped in the sliver of coastal jungle controlled by the LTTE and are living in "dire humanitarian conditions."


Both sides in the long-running conflict have traded accusations of targetting civilians, while the international community has repeatedly urged a permanent ceasefire to prevent any further loss of innocent lives.


Earlier Monday, Sri Lankan security forces said they overran a Tamil Tiger defensive line and rescued at least 5,000 civilians.


"This is the biggest single rescue so far and we believe the number of civilians crossing over to our side will increase," said military spokesman Udaya Nanayakkara.


President Rajapakse, meanwhile, said time had finally run out for LTTE supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran, who has not been seen at the guerrillas’ public functions for nearly 18 months.


"The only thing Prabhakaran can now do is to surrender, the president said. "I don’t want him to take cyanide and commit suicide. He has to face charges for his actions."


In February, government troops captured a two-storey air conditioned bunker hidden in a coconut grove in Mullaittivu district — thought to be one of Prabhakaran’s main bases.


Pictures released by the defence ministry purported to show that Prabhakaran, 54, had left behind a stuffed tiger, a paintball gun and a bottle of cognac.


Sri Lankan media then speculated that he may have already slipped off the island by boat.


The LTTE were once seen as one of the world’s most efficient guerrilla outfits, controlling a third of Sri Lanka’s territory, an overseas fund-raising network and a lucrative shipping business.


But now the rebels are outnumbered and surrounded in the jungles outside Mullaittivu, their former military headquarters in the northeast.

[Full Coverage]

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