Civil War Threat in Sri Lanka

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) - The Sri Lankan government appealed
Friday for tens of thousands of civilians to flee the northern war
zone and said it would open two safe passages in the area for the
exodus.

The civilians are trapped along with the Tamil Tiger rebels
inside a shrinking strip of land along the northeast coast. Human
Rights Watch said last week at least 2,000 civilians had been
killed in recent weeks.

International officials have issued increasing appeals to the
military and the rebels to halt their battle temporarily to allow
the civilians to escape, but the government has refused, saying it
was on the verge of crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
and ending the quarter-century civil war.

Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona said Friday that the government
was calling on the trapped civilians to flee to
government-controlled areas to the north and south along a coastal
road.

"The idea is to ask the people to ... walk away," he said.
"We would hope that the LTTE, if they really are interested in
their people, would let those people go."

Kohona said the move did not amount to a temporary cease-fire,
but added the government had not shelled that road in any event.

It was unclear how the government's announcement would change
the situation on the ground.

With most communication to the north severed, the rebels could
not be reached for comment. However, they have repeatedly appealed
for a cease-fire.

The United Nations cautiously welcomed the appeal.

"Any additional measure to relieve the suffering of civilians
is welcome," said U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss. "Let's watch and
see if this translates into an effective safe passage for trapped
civilians."

Aid groups estimate 200,000 civilians are squeezed into an area
of less than 19 square miles (50 square kilometers). The government
says the number is closer to 70,000.

Human rights groups and ethnic Tamils who have fled the area
accused the military of shelling civilian areas inside the war zone
and accused the rebels of holding the civilians as human shields.
Both sides deny the accusations.

The government's announcement came hours after U.N.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon renewed his call for both sides to
suspend hostilities to allow civilians to flee and urgently needed
aid to be delivered.

"There is an urgent need to bring this conflict to a speedy end
without further loss of civilian life," U.N. spokeswoman Michele
Montas said, speaking for Ban.

The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for an independent
state for the Tamil minority, which suffered decades of
marginalization at the hands of governments dominated by the
Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the
fighting.

In recent months, the military has driven the rebels out of much
of their de facto state in the north.

Residents of the war zone said they were facing relentless
shelling that killed dozens of civilians Wednesday and Thursday and
left many scrounging for food to survive.

"It's been four days since my family has eaten," Mary Jacinta
Balachandran, 46, told The Associated Press by telephone as she
waited at a makeshift clinic in the war zone.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara denied the army,
which is fighting to take control of the last rebel-held town, was
responsible for the shelling.

The government has barred independent reporters from the area,
making it impossible to verify accounts of the civilians' plight or
the fighting raging around them.

The army said it recovered the bodies of 33 rebel fighters who
launched a pre-dawn attack on troops in the area Thursday. It gave
no indication of military casualties.


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