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Sri Lanka war exodus at 39,000 as deadline nears

[Reuters, Tuesday, 21 April 2009 06:51 No Comment]

tamil_civilian An exodus of civilians fleeing Sri Lanka’s war zone topped 39,000 and more were coming, the military said on Tuesday before its final deadline for the Tamil Tiger rebels to surrender or die was to expire.

 

The huge outpouring of people started on Monday after soldiers breached an earthen berm blocking the main route out of a 17 square km (6.5 sq mile) no-fire zone on the northeastern coast, the last redoubt controlled the separatist Tigers.

 

The presence of tens of thousands of civilians trapped by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been the main obstacle for the Sri Lankan military, which has cornered the rebels with the aim of finishing the 25-year-old war.

 

The United Nations and western governments have urged the military to renew a brief truce to negotiate the peoples’ exit, a plea the government has rejected on the grounds that the Tigers have dismissed all entreaties to let the people out.

 

"There are 39,081 civilians that have arrived and they are still arriving," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. "Military operations are still continuing."

 

With Asia’s longest-running civil war now nearing its end, Sri Lanka will face the twin challenges of healing the divide between the Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority, and reviving an $40 billion economy that is suffering on multiple fronts.

 

The island nation is seeking a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund loan to shore up a balance of payments crisis and boost flagging foreign exchange reserves, half of which were spent defending the rupee in the last four months of 2008.

 

On Monday, the military had given the LTTE a last ultimatum to surrender by noon on Tuesday (0630 GMT). It has given similar ultimatums in the past, and it was not clear what would happen once it passed.

 

It was also unclear how many civilians remained inside the no-fire zone, but the military operation triggered protests by expatriate Tamils in London and Paris on Monday.

 

In the latter city, around 180 people were arrested and four injured when the demonstration turned violent as protesters blocked an intersection and threw objects at buses and police, police said.

 

AERIAL FOOTAGE

Sri Lanka’s military on Monday released video shot by unmanned aerial drones it said showed the throngs of people waiting to be checked by soldiers outside the no-fire zone, and one showing people running out of the LTTE-held area.

 

Late on Monday, the military released another video shot by a drone, which it said showed several hundred people in a tight cluster along the shore.

 

A few seconds later, two people outside the cluster aim and fire what appears to be a rifle toward the people several times. Muzzle flashes are visible in the video, which the military said was taken near the northern border of the no-fire zone on Monday.

 

"They were being shot at by the LTTE. From the information we got from the 55 (army) Division, which was closest, quite a number of people were wounded by gunshots," air force spokesman Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara said.

 

The United Nations has long said the LTTE was forcibly preventing people from leaving and forcing others to fight.

 

The LTTE insists people are staying out of choice, and on Monday the pro-LTTE web site www.Tamilet.com reported that a large number of people had fled toward Tiger areas as the military moved into the no-fire zone.

 

TamilNet also said nearly 1,000 were killed in the assault, quoting LTTE political head B. Nadesan. The military denies killing civilians.

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