Civilians Leave War Zone Ahead of Deadline

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) - Tens of thousands of civilians fled
Sri Lanka's northern war zone in a record exodus ahead of the
government's deadline Tuesday for separatist Tamil rebels there to
surrender, officials said.

More than 39,000 civilians arrived at military checkpoints on
Monday, within hours of a military operation that saw Sri Lankan
soldiers break through a barrier that the Tamil Tiger rebels had
erected to defend their ever-shrinking slice of territory along the
northern coast.

The number of fleeing civilians Monday was the largest in a
single day, and that rate was expected to increase Tuesday as more
people made their way out, said military spokesman Brig. Udaya
Nanayakkara said.

The government issued a 24-hour deadline Monday for the cornered
rebels to surrender or face a final assault - a signal that the
insurgents may be on the verge of total defeat after 25 years of
rebellion. They did not respond to the ultimatum as the Tuesday
noon (0630 GMT) deadline approached.

Meanwhile, the sheer number of fleeing civilians made it clear
the government had vastly underestimated the number of those caught
in the fighting.

Aid groups have said in recent weeks that more than 100,000
civilians were stranded in the war zone, while the government put
the number at about 40,000, roughly the number that crossed over
Monday.

More than 4,500 civilians have been killed in the past three
months, according to U.N. estimates. The U.N. Children's Fund said
it fears for the safety of children still trapped in the war zone
if fighting continues and the rebels refuse to allow people to
leave.

"With this latest surge in fighting, our greatest fear is that
the worst is yet to come," said Daniel Toole, the agency's South
Asia director.

The U.N. and others have called for a negotiated truce to allow
civilians to leave the dwindling, rebel-held enclave.

But the government has rejected such calls, saying it is on the
verge of crushing the rebels and putting an end to the Asia's
longest-running civil war.

The rebels have fought for an independent homeland for the
country's ethnic minority Tamils 70,000. More than 70,000 people
have been killed in the violence.


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