04/20/2009, 00.00
SRI LANKA

Colombo army: tens of thousands of civilians fleeing war zone

The military says that it has broken through the defense line of the Tamil rebels, allowing the population to flee. Sources for the army say 30,000 people are on the move. The government is issuing an ultimatum to the guerrillas: a surrender within 24 hours. According to the UN, over the last three months the war has caused at least 4,500 deaths among civilians.

Colombo (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Thousands of civilians are leaving the war zone in the lagoon of Nanthi Kadal. The statement comes from the Defense Ministry of Colombo, which is releasing information on military operations in the areas of Puthumathalan and Amplalavanpokkani. According to official army sources, the 58th division has made a breach in the earthworks erected by the Tamil rebels on the eastern border of the no fire zone, to block the advance of the army and prevent the population from leaving.

The Colombo government has called the fighting this morning "the largest hostage rescue operation ever conducted." Brigadier General Udaya Nanayakkara, a spokesman for the army, says that the operation is still in progress, and the advance of the military continues. Defense minister Keheliya Rambukkwella has issued an ultimatum to the LTTE, giving the rebels 24 hours to surrender, beginning at noon today.

According to government sources, while the civilians were leaving the area of the lagoon, three Tamil guerrillas blew themselves up among the people, killing 17 and injuring 22. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) instead claim that the army invaded the no fire zone, opening fire on the civilians and launching bombs, including cluster bombs. The ban on entering  the area that the government of Colombo has imposed on the media and on international observers is making it impossible to verify the real situation in the area of the fighting. The state television channel shows thousands of refugees on the move, dragging their few belongings with them (in the photo, one of the images from the broadcasts).

The government and the rebels say there is "great confusion" in the area, where there are still at least 100,000 civilians trapped in the 20 square kilometers in which the two sides are fighting. The UN has estimated that over the past three months, at least 4,500 civilians have been killed, and tens of thousands have been injured. Humanitarian organizations to continue to accuse the rebels of using the population as human shields, and the army of opening fire indiscriminately on civilians.

In spite of the repeated requests for a cease-fire made by the international community, civil society in the country, and the Church of Sri Lanka, the military operations continue. The UN and humanitarian organizations have long been saying that the north of the country is in the grips of a severe humanitarian crisis.

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