Civilians in Sri Lanka War Zone Face Catastrophe

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) - Tens of thousands of civilians trapped
in Sri Lanka's northern war zone face a "catastrophic" situation,
the Red Cross said Tuesday, amid fears a final assault against the
Tamil Tiger rebels would lead to a dramatic rise in casualties.

The United Nations and others have called for a negotiated truce
to allow civilians to leave the rebel-held coastal strip - and the
government says more than 52,000 had escaped since Monday.

But it has refused to heed the international pleas to halt the
fighting, saying it is on the verge of crushing the separatists and
putting an end to the 25-year-old war.

The U.N. estimated more than 4,500 civilians have been killed in
the past three months.

The rebels said more than 1,000 civilians died Monday in a
government raid, while the government said it rescued thousands
after they broke through a barrier built by the insurgents that
protects their last stronghold.

Human rights groups say the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are
holding many people in the enclave against their will and using
them as human shields. Those groups have also accused the
government of indiscriminate shelling in the region. Both sides
deny the allegations.

Thousands of civilians also fled in packed small boats, and they
were picked up by navy patrols and transported to camps where
Tamils who have escaped the war are being held. More than 2,000
people in about 100 boats were picked up Monday.

The Red Cross said about 50,000 civilians were still stranded,
while Human Rights Watch put the number between 50,000 and 100,000.

The U.S. government released satellite images Tuesday showing
about 25,000 tents housing civilians squeezed into the last small
strip controlled by the rebels, a coastal strip of about only 8
square miles (21 square kilometers). The State Department estimated
about 125,000 people were in the conflict zone before the exodus
over the past two days.

A worker for Doctors Without Borders said hundreds of wounded
were arriving at her hospital in Vavuniya, south of the war zone,
in government-arranged buses, and some had died en route. The
hospital is overcrowded with 1,200 people being accommodated in a
facility with only 400 beds, said mental health officer Karen
Stewart, according to a statement from the aid group.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres was
concerned about the "dramatic situation" for civilians still in
the war zone, said commission spokesman Ron Redmond.

"There are innocent civilians - women and children - caught in
the middle of the conflict ... so the high commissioner is saying
there should be a pause in the hostilities and the LTTE should
allow civilians to leave," Redmond said.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara denied that 1,000
civilians died, saying 17 civilians were killed Monday by rebel
shelling and by three suicide bombers.

"Our troops are rescuing the trapped civilians. It's the LTTE
which is preventing civilians from fleeing," Nanayakkara said.

It was impossible to get independent accounts of casualties
because journalists are restricted from the war zone.

The number of fleeing civilians made it clear that the
government had vastly underestimated how many people were caught in the fighting.

"Both sides need to show far greater concern for civilians, or
many more civilians will die," said Brad Adams, Asia director for
the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.

A final government offensive "could lead to a dramatic increase
in the number of civilian casualties," the International Committee
of the Red Cross said.

"The situation is nothing short of catastrophic. Ongoing
fighting has killed or wounded hundreds of civilians who have only
minimal access to medical care," said Red Cross operations
director Pierre Kraehenbuehl. "I cannot remember ... as much
concentrated pain and exposure to violence with very, very minimal
possibilities to reach anywhere that could be called safe."

The U.N. Children's Fund South Asia director Daniel Toole said
he was worried about the safety of children still in the war zone
because "our greatest fear is that the worst is yet to come."

The military spokesman said there was no fighting Tuesday
evening, adding that it avoids using heavy, long-range weapons.

Nanayakkara said 39,081 civilians fled the war zone Monday, the
most in a single day, and at least 13,000 people crossed over
Tuesday, with the stream continuing.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the U.S. was pleased
so many civilians had fled, but he remained concerned about what he
called credible reports of increasing casualties and indiscriminate
firing on civilians by rebel forces.

Encouraged by the exodus, the government Monday asked the rebels
to surrender within 24 hours, warning of a final assault if they
failed. The ultimatum expired at noon (2:30 a.m. EDT) Tuesday
without a response from the rebels.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa rejected a call by British Prime
Minister Gordon Brown for a pause in the fighting, his office said
Tuesday.

The president's office said in a statement that Rajapaksa deemed
a pause "unnecessary" considering the "unexpected exodus of
civilians" when the two leaders had spoken by phone Monday.

Red Cross spokeswoman Sarasi Wijeratne said the organization
could not confirm or deny the figures quoted by the military.
According to figures received by the Red Cross, 11,000 people
crossed the front lines Monday and another 5,000 came Tuesday, she
said.

The U.N. refugee agency said it is ready to provide shelter and
aid to tens of thousands of displaced civilians.

Redmond said the UNHCR was working with the government to make
more land available for displacement camps because existing sites
were overcrowded, he said.

The rebels have fought since 1983 for an independent state for
Sri Lanka's ethnic minority Tamils. More than 70,000 people have
been killed in the years of violence.


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