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Sri Lanka says combat gives way to rescue

[Reuters, Monday, 27 April 2009 17:28 No Comment]

Sri Lanka on Monday ordered troops to stop using heavy weapons against the Tamil Tiger rebels, a renewed pledge the United Nations’ aid chief said must be respected this time around to protect civilians.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam immediately accused the government of disregarding its own commitment by launching two air raids on the tiny rebel-held area.

 

Sri Lanka’s announcement came a day after it dismissed an attempt to declare a truce by the rebels, now cornered in less than 10 square km of coastline by 50,000 troops fighting to finish Asia’s longest modern war.

 

"Combat operations have reached their conclusion," a statement from President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office said. Soldiers would "confine their attempts to rescuing civilians who are held hostage and give foremost priority to saving civilians."

 

Troops have been ordered not to use heavy-calibre guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons, the statement said.

 

Britain, the European Union, India and the United Nations welcomed Sri Lanka’s promise contingent on its being implemented.

 

"I hope that the idea of not using heavy weapons will genuinely be respected, which I am afraid has not been the case in the past," U.N. aid chief John Holmes told reporters in Colombo as he wrapped up a two-day trip to Sri Lanka.

 

"It’s absolutely important that what the government has said is now respected," he said. The world body estimates more than 50,000 people remain in "mortal danger," he said.

 

HUMAN SHIELDS?

 

The military denies accusations from the LTTE, United Nations and others that it was shelling the rebel area, which until last week had been an army-declared no-fire zone. The Tigers deny accusations they are holding the people as human shields.

 

The military has deployed special forces, commandos and snipers using only small arms, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara had said earlier.

 

Analysts said Sri Lanka’s announcement appeared designed to mollify diplomatic pressure for a cease-fire, which the government has ruled out given the LTTE’s history of using breaks in fighting to rearm and its rejection of two truces this year.

 

The conventional war’s impending end will leave Sri Lanka facing the challenges of healing years of division and boosting an economy beset by a declining currency, falling exports of tea and garments and low foreign exchange reserves.

 

It is seeking a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund loan and business executives are optimistic the war’s end will bring foreign investment back, but the LTTE has warned it will stage guerrilla attacks on economic targets as it has done before.

 

The rebels have vowed no surrender in their fight for a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, a struggle that began in the early 1970s and erupted into civil war in 1983.

 

For weeks before Monday’s move, the military had said it was only using small arms in order to protect civilians in what it has dubbed the largest hostage rescue operation in the world.

 

"I don’t see any substantial change. This would probably be in deference to international opinion," said Col. R. Hariharan, who was head of military intelligence for the Indian army during its 1987-1990 peacekeeping mission in Sri Lanka.

 

"What is there to stop anyway? That stage is gone. I don’t think anybody will take it very seriously," he said.

 

"ATTEMPTS TO DECEIVE"

 

LTTE peace secretariat chief S. Puleedevan accused Sri Lanka of "attempting to deceive the international community, including the people of Tamil Nadu" with the announcement, pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com reported.

 

Puleedevan said two jets bombed the rebel area on Monday, TamilNet reported, which the air force denied.

Access to the war zone is restricted for most outsiders, and few inside have full independence, so getting a clear account of battlefield events is difficult.

 

The Sri Lankan war has become an election issue in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home to 60 million Tamils. The state’s chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, abruptly stopped a decision to fast in protest at the war after Rajapaksa’s announcement.

 

India pledged 1 billion Indian rupees to help the more than 200,000 refugees who have been evacuated, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said.

 

More than 113,000 have fled since troops a week ago blew up an earth barricade blocking access in or out of the rebel area.

 

Last-minute diplomatic efforts have borne little fruit, with the LTTE refusing to release the people and the government saying the Tigers must surrender or be destroyed.

[Full Coverage]

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