5,000 civilians flee Sri Lanka’s war-zone: Military (Lead)

April 20th, 2009 - 2:58 pm ICT by IANS  

Colombo, April 20 (IANS) Over 5,000 civilians Monday fled Sri Lanka’s northern war-zone and entered the government-held areas as troops continued to advance towards the last stronghold of the Tamil Tigers as part of their “hostage rescue mission”, a military spokesman here said.
“A record 5,000 besieged civilians in the Puthumathalan No Fire Zone (NFZ) escaped from the grip of the LTTE and reached the army-held areas in Puthukkudiyiruppu early this (Monday) morning,” Military Spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told IANS.

Most of the civilians made their way across the Nathikkadal lagoon area.

He said that the people started fleeing the war-zone when the troops advancing further into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-held areas captured a three km long earth bund from the rebels in the early hours of Monday.

“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.

According to 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 the 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.

The latest development comes as the international community, including the UN, the US, Britain, France and India, mounted pressure on Sri Lanka to demand a longer pause in the fighting in the northeastern Mullaitivu district to ensure the safe exit of thousands of civilians.

They also urged the LTTE to free the civilians without holding them as hostages.

Virtually rejecting the calls by the international community, President Mahinda Rajapaksa Saturday urged the international community to exert pressure on the LTTE to free civilians, instead of asking him to stop the military operation.

“The LTTE has been holding thousands of civilians hostage in the Wanni. I ask the international community to put pressure on LTTE to give this people freedom for just one hour, then they all will come over the government-held areas.

“Instead of asking me to stop the ongoing humanitarian operation, the international organisations should exert pressure on LTTE (to free civilians),” Rajapaksa said.

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