Civilians keep fleeing, army tightens noose around LTTE

April 23rd, 2009 - 5:14 pm ICT by IANS  

Colombo, April 23 (IANS) Starving and wounded Tamil civilians Thursday continued to flee Sri Lanka’s war zone, taking the total escapees in four days to over 103,000, with the the last of the Tamil Tigers holed up in a small strip of land offering “dwindling but constant” resistance.
As the international community kept pressing for a halt in fighting, the foreign ministry said it believed that 15,000-20,000 Tamil civilians might be in the area still with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Diplomats and military officials said the fleeing men, women and children were being provided food and medical aid after being screened to weed out possible guerrilla infiltrators hiding in their midst.

Sri Lankan troops meanwhile kept up the pressure on the rebels, who are now left with barely 14 sq km of territory, an appalling fall from the times when their writ ran over vast areas in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority northeastern province.

According to the military, over 103,000 civilians have fled since Monday morning and entered government-controlled areas despite desperate efforts by the LTTE to prevent them from leaving.

Some of the civilians complained to officials that Tiger gunmen opened fire when they tried to escape from the sea, wounding and killing people on the beachhead.

“The Tigers are now boxed in an area not more than 14 sq km,” the defence ministry said. It said the army’s 55 Division was approaching the last of the Tiger bases from the north and the 58 Division from the west, cutting off escape routes for the guerrillas.

There is no official word on the whereabouts of Velupillai Prabhakaran, who founded the group in 1976 and has led a violent campaign to carve out an independent Tamil state out of Sri Lanka’s northeast.

On Wednesday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa vowed that Prabhakaran would have to face “consequences” for all his acts of violence the past 25 years and for rejecting his surrender call.

The defence ministry said the steadily advancing troops encountered “dwindling but constant” resistance from the LTTE, which has been fighting to carve out a separate state for a bloody quarter century.

By Thursday morning, the number of people fleeing the war zone since the beginning of this year shot up to about 175,700. These include over 31,000 children and 28,000 women.

The military said “elaborate arrangements were underway” to accommodate the swelling numbers civilian refugees, whose plight has been described by some diplomats as appalling.

Many of them had been boxed in the LTTE area for about four months, unable to escape even as fighting escalated.

The government said that efforts were on to coordinate with the ministry of resettlement and rehabilitation, security forces and selected state and private sector agencies to provide emergency assistance to the civilians.

A ministry official said 700 acres had been earmarked to set up another relief village (welfare centre) to house the internally displaced people (IDP) in the northern town of Vavuniya. Many of the civilians have been hospitalised with a variety of ailments besides bullet and shell wounds.

Over 1,250 IDPs are at the Vavuniya hospital while nearly 1,000 are warded in a hospital in the adjoining district of Mannar. At least four other hospitals in Vavuniya and Mannar districts are also teeming with patients.

The Sri Lankan government has rejected international calls to halt fighting even temporarily, saying pressure should be mounted on the Tigers instead to make them free the civilians in their control.

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