30,000 civilians flee LTTE-held areas, 17 killed in blasts (Third Lead)

April 20th, 2009 - 4:18 pm ICT by IANS  

By P. Karunakharan
Colombo, April 20 (IANS) Over 30,000 civilians Monday fled Sri Lanka’s northern war-zone while 17 people were killed in three suicide bomb attacks by the Tamil Tigers as troops advanced deep into the last stronghold of the rebels, authorities said.

“Latest reports received from the Army 58 Division indicate that over 30,000 civilians held hostage by LTTE terrorists at Puthumathalan and Amplalavanpokkani areas have been liberated,” the defence ministry said, adding that several thousand more civilians were waiting to be rescued by the armed forces.

It said that the mass rescue operation reached a significant phase when troops captured the 3 km long earth bund built by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), on the western border of the No Fire Zone (NFZ) Monday morning.

According to the defence ministry, the mass exodus of Tamil civilians began Monday morning when the troops “opened a safe route for the hostages to come out of the LTTE grip”.

“The LTTE terrorists have launched a cowardly attack at the Tamil civilians leaving their grip. Three LTTE suicide cadres have exploded themselves killing dozens of refugees including women and children,” the ministry report said.

Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told IANS that most of the civilians besieged in the Puthumathalan NFZ have made their way across the Nathikkadal lagoon area, defying the orders of the LTTE to stay on. The civilians reached the army-held areas in Puthukkudiyiruppu.

“Troops in Puthukkudiyiruppu confirmed a huge exodus of people is on the way,” Brig. Nanayakkara said, charging that the LTTE has fired several rounds of artillery shells towards the escaping civilians.

State-run television showed footage of thousands of civilians, including children, women and elders, fleeing the war-zone and happily entering the army-held areas a couple of kilometres away.

The area was flooded with people. Most of them were carrying children and a small bag which seemed to be their only property.

Military sources said that the mass exodus of people in a matter of few hours “clearly demonstrated the fact that the LTTE and its leadership have lost the support of the people whom it has held hostage for past three months”.

According to state-run television, the military authorities “even at this last moment have demanded the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his cadres lay down their weapons and surrender without delay to avoid facing a total annihilation”.

“Prabhakaran has nothing to hold on now. It will be a better option for him to surrender,” an official has been quoted as saying.

According to the military estimates, some 70,000 civilians have been trapped in a 12-km stretch along the coastal area for the past three months, though some of the villagers have been able to escape against the wishes of the rebels.

An estimated 68,000 civilians have left the rebel-held areas since the beginning of 2009 and are currently housed in refugee camps and welfare centres in the northern Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna districts.

The military says it is in the last phase of a drive to crush the LTTE, which has been fighting to carve out a separate state in the northern eastern region of the island since 1983.

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