Thousands more flee Sri Lanka war zone, no trace of LTTE chief (Roundup)

April 21st, 2009 - 10:29 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh Colombo, April 21 (IANS) Thousands of sick, injured and fatigued Tamil civilians fled Sri Lanka’s shrunken war zone Tuesday in a heart rending “human avalanche”, but there was no trace of the elusive Tamil Tigers chief Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Television footage showed men, women and children wearily walking out of a strip of land in coastal Mullaitivu district after troops poured into the last remaining base of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a determined bid to crush a quarter century long separatist campaign.

The apparent end game in the LTTE’s armed struggle, which has left more than 70,000 dead, evoked political tremors in neighbouring India where Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi pressed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to force Sri Lanka to declare an immediate truce.

As if in response, Manmohan Singh declared that the LTTE — which is outlawed in India — was “a terrorist organisation” and Prabhakaran, 54, was “a proclaimed offender” for ordering the 1991 assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. His widow Sonia Gandhi now heads India’s ruling coalition.

“The LTTE is a terrorist organisation. Prabhakran is a proclaimed offender. That position has not changed,” Manmohan Singh told Times Now TV channel.

He spoke after Karunanidhi sent a frantic telegram to Manmohan Singh and Gandhi describing the situation in Sri Lanka as alarming and the condition of the Tamils as “very critical”. He asked them to give an ultimatum to Colombo “for an immediate and permanent ceasefire and save lakhs of Tamils in Sri Lanka”.

But electoral politics — the Congress and Karunanidhi’s DMK are key allies in Tamil Nadu — made the Congress change course by evening when it urged Sri Lanka to ensure “cessation of hostility” to allow Tamils to move out of the conflict zone.

“The Congress is deeply concerned about the fate of innocent Sri Lankan Tamils. We appeal to the Sri Lankan government to ensure cessation of hostility and allow the innocent Tamils to move safely from the conflict zone,” Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan said in New Delhi.

Colombo has in the past refused to declare any truce, saying this would only provide oxygen to a badly cornered LTTE, which until a few years ago controlled vast areas in Sri Lanka’s northeast.

The defence ministry said the army’s 58 Division had entered Puthumathalan and Amapalavanpokkanai in the no fire zone (NFZ) from where over 31,000 civilians escaped to government-held areas Monday. This has taken the number of Tamils who have fled the LTTE territory so far to some 52,000.

“Now the troops have established positions from Puthumathalan to the beachhead,” it said. Puthumathalan is located 395 km northeast of the Sri Lankan capital.

Sri Lankan intelligence sources say that Prabhakaran and his intelligence chief Pottu Amman are still in the area. The LTTE is now left with just 12 sq km on the coast of Mullaitivu.

The Tamil Tigers Tuesday failed to meet the noon deadline set by Colombo to surrender. There was also no word on Prabhakaran, the LTTE’s feared founder leader who the military has vowed to capture or kill.

“The LTTE terrorists have not surrendered during the ultimatum. But the people who were held hostage by the LTTE in a small strip of coastal land in Mullaitivu continue to arrive in the government-held areas in large numbers,” military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told IANS.

Televisions showed thousands of civilians fleeing the rebel held area, a mass exodus that began Monday. Sri Lankan media dubbed it a “human avalanche”, with the Daily Mirror newspaper calling it a “great escape”.

Most civilians — in tattered clothes — carried a small bag, perhaps their sole belonging.

There are varying estimates about the number of civilians still holed up in the area, who Colombo had earlier said were being forcibly held back by the Tigers as a human shield. The number last month ranged from the Indian estimate of 70,000 to the UN’s 250,000.

The LTTE meanwhile claimed that about 1,000 civilians were killed and 2,300 injured in military operations since Monday. The rebels urged the UN and international organisations to act, saying civilian casualties were mounting due to the army’s move to evacuate civilians from the war zone.

Security forces have moved further into the rebel-held areas, capturing among other places a police station that had been run by the Tamil Tigers.

The conflict and civilian suffering has triggered massive demonstrations by Tamils in Western capitals, forcing some countries to urge Colombo and the Tigers to go for peace.

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