Civilians in war zone will be rescued: Rajapaksa (Lead)

May 15th, 2009 - 7:09 pm ICT by IANS  

Colombo, May 15 (DPA) President Mahinda Rajapaksa has declared that all civilians caught in fighting in a shrinking strip of land held by Tamil Tigers in northeastern Sri Lanka would be rescued in the next 48 hours.
The government had estimated that 20,000 civilians were trapped in the area as government troops conduct their final push to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but UN agencies said the civilians’ numbers exceed 50,000.

Rajapaksa made the declaration Thursday night while speaking to Sri Lankans living in Jordan during an official visit to the country, the department said.

In a related development UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff Vijay Nambiar has arrived in Sri Lanka to further discuss the plight of civilians trapped in the rebel-held area and those currently in the welfare centres, government sources said.

The UN secretary general had earlier called Rajapaksa in Jordon and discussed the latest situation in the conflict areas.

Meanwhile, thousands of civilians were moving across a lagoon toward a military-controlled area, and troops were entering the last rebel-held areas in the country amid resistance from the LTTE.

A reporter for state-run Sri Lanka Rupavahini television stationed on the frontline with troops in the coastal area of the Mullaitivu district, 395 km northeast of Colombo, said in a report Friday that he could see large explosions in the rebel-controlled area with huge volumes of smoke rising into the sky.

Journalist Saman Kumara Ramawickrema said the explosions were coming from the centre of the rebel-held area where the LTTE leadership is believed to be.

“This could be that the terrorists blowing up some of their own heavy military hardware as they had done Thursday in some of the coastal areas,” he said.

He said that according to military intelligence, the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, along with his deputy, known as Pottu Amman, were still in the area.

Independent confirmation of the report was not possible because the government has barred other journalists and independent observers from the war zone.

Between Thursday and Friday noon, an estimated 6,000 civilians fled the rebel-controlled area by crossing the shallow lagoon, and more civilians were coming out Friday, military officials said.

Since Sunday, more than 450 civilians were reported to have been killed in the area with both the government and the LTTE blaming one another for the attacks on the civilians.

The International Committee of the Red Cross chartered a ship that has been trying to reach the area to rescue injured civilians, but the ship failed to reach the location because of heavy fighting between troops and rebels.

Since January this year, more than 180,000 civilians have been rescued or fled the rebel-controlled area and are living in camps set up by the government in the northern part of the country.

Military officials said they are on the final phase of a military offensive launched in August 2006 to crush the LTTE, which has been fighting for an independent homeland for the minority Tamils for more than 25 years.

At the beginning of February, Rajapaksa, who was elected in 2005 on a security platform, had said he was confident of defeating the LTTE within days and ending the country’s civil war.

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