Sri Lanka Thursday offered a new safe passage for thousands of civilians trapped in the island’s war zone as fresh fighting erupted, leaving at least 33 rebels dead, the defence ministry said.
A pitched battle raged in the village of Chalai on Thursday, a day after a local Red Cross employee was killed while helping non-combatants leave the area.
Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona said the government had declared safe routes for civilians out of the shrinking territory still under rebel control in the northeast of the island.
"One will lead north past Chalai while the other will be south past Mullaittivu town," Kohona said, adding that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had been invited to help civilians make use of the exits.
The government announcement came as the ICRC said one of its employees helping to evacuate wounded civilians from the conflict zone died after being hit by shrapnel Wednesday.
"One of our male workers was killed on Wednesday afternoon by shrapnel," said ICRC spokeswoman Sarasi Wijeratne, who identified the victim as Vadivel Vijayakumar, an ethnic Tamil.
"Despite this unfortunate incident, the ICRC will remain in the conflict area and continue with our humanitarian work."
Wijeratne said it was not clear who was responsible for the attack, which occurred after Vijayakumar helped injured civilians board an ICRC ferry taking them to safety.
Since February, the ICRC has helped evacuate nearly 2,800 patients and their relatives by sea from the island’s northeast as a military offensive drove the separatist rebel forces close to final defeat.
The military estimates some 70,000 people remain inside the war zone, while 36,000 civilians have sought shelter in the government-controlled areas.
Human Rights Watch Thursday demanded urgent evacuation of non-combatants as food and medicines were running short.
"A humanitarian evacuation of civilians is desperately needed right now," said HRW’s Asia director, Brad Adams.
HRW accused the Tamil Tigers of holding civilians as "human shields," preventing people from leaving the areas under their control and forcibly recruiting children to fight the army.
The rights group also alleged the military had "repeatedly and indiscriminately" shelled densely populated areas and hospitals inside the war zone.
With the exception of the ICRC, aid agencies face many restrictions in their efforts to transport food and supplies to civilians caught up in the conflict.
"The world is watching as a humanitarian disaster unfolds in Sri Lanka," said Adams. "The UN and concerned governments should step forward to help prevent needless civilian deaths in Sri Lanka."
Military spokesman Udaya Nanayakkara said Tiger rebels mounted an assault against troops in the coastal Chalai area on Thursday morning, but security forces repulsed the attack and seized a large cache of weapons.
"We recovered 33 bodies of the terrorists and 33 automatic assault rifles and several other weapons and ammunition," Nanayakkara said, adding that security forces were consolidating their positions in the area.
He did not say if troops suffered any casualties.