Sri Lanka To Stop Airstrikes, Shelling Of Rebels

By: Ravi Nessman, Associated Press Email
By: Ravi Nessman, Associated Press Email

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) - Sri Lanka agreed to stop firing heavy weapons into the northern war zone to safeguard thousands of civilians trapped there, but resisted growing pressure Monday for a cease-fire in its war with the Tamil Tiger rebels.

The rebels accused the government of instantly violating its promise by launching airstrikes from three sides on a village in a densely populated no-fire zone, a pro-guerrilla Web site reported.

A flurry of diplomatic activity has so far failed to halt an offensive that has forced the rebels out of the shadow state they once ran in the north of this Indian Ocean island nation and left them cornered in a tiny coastal strip.

U.S., Indian and European officials have expressed growing concern for the estimated 50,000 ethnic Tamil civilians still trapped in the war zone amid U.N. reports that nearly 6,500 noncombatants have already been killed in the recent offensive.

The United Nations' humanitarian chief, John Holmes, asked President Mahinda Rajapaksa during a meeting in Colombo on Monday for a "humanitarian pause" in the fighting to allow the civilians to escape or at least to emerge from their bunkers to forage for food.

"I have to say, I don't see much prospect of that at the moment," he told journalists before flying back to New York after a three-day visit.

EU foreign ministers also appealed for an immediate cease-fire and urged peace talks to end the quarter-century civil war. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his French and Swedish counterparts were to come here Wednesday to press the point.

In an apparent effort to allay the pressure, the government issued a brief statement Monday announcing "that combat operations have reached their conclusion," and instructing the military "to end the use of heavy caliber guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons which could cause civilian casualties."

The government, which accuses the rebels of holding the civilians as human shields, said it would continue efforts to free them.

The statement, a day after the government flatly rejected a cease-fire appeal from the rebels, was surrounded by confusion.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said the military had stopped using the weapons weeks ago.

But rebel spokesman Seevaratnam Puleedevan accused the government of "deceiving the international community" and told the TamilNet Web site the military launched two airstrikes in the small, coastal village of Mullivaikal soon after the announcement.

Reporters are barred from the war zone.

Government officials refused to elaborate on their decision, but a further statement rejecting the cease-fire appeals said Sri Lanka planned to press ahead with its offensive.

"Security forces are now reaching victory ... and in no form will leave a breather for the internationally banned terrorist outfit or its leaders," said the statement posted on the Defense Ministry Web site.

Holmes, welcomed the government's announcement it would no longer use heavy weapons, but expressed concern it won't be implemented on the ground.

"I hope the idea of not using heavy weapons will be genuinely respected this time, which I'm afraid it's not been in the past," he said.

Holmes also visited the town of Vavuniya south of the war zone to inspect displacement camps overwhelmed by the influx of more than 100,000 war refugees over the past week. He pledged $10 million in aid to help cope with the needs of those displaced.

While the government has made progress in providing the displaced with food and shelter, Holmes later said there is "an awful long way to go before we get to satisfactory conditions."

In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Holmes said he also urged freedom of movement for those in the camps as soon as possible and accelerated measures to reunify families and reduce the military presence in the camps.

"They say `yes' they will do all those things, they're moving in that direction. But we want to see faster action. We need to see them move forward," he said from Doha, Qatar.

Facing near certain defeat, the rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire Sunday, which the government flatly rejected.

Early Monday, the military attacked Mullivaikal from the north, south and west, TamilNet reported. The village is in a no-fire zone the government demarcated inside rebel territory as a civilian refuge.

The Web site said the area was densely populated with tens of thousands of civilians.

The Tamil Tigers, listed as a terrorist group by many Western nations, have been fighting since 1983 for an ethnic Tamil state in the north and east after decades of marginalization by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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