Sri Lanka ends heavy firepower against LTTE, says not a ceasefire (Third Lead)

April 27th, 2009 - 8:52 pm ICT by IANS  

P. Chidambaram Colombo, April 27 (IANS) Amid mounting concern over civilian suffering, Sri Lanka Monday announced that “combat operations” against the Tamil Tigers had concluded and clarified that this did not amount to a ceasefire though it would stop using aircraft and heavy weapons.
The government ordered its security forces to stop using “heavy guns, aerial weapons and combat aircraft” that have allegedly caused thousands of deaths.

It said the military would instead start rescuing civilians from a small coastal area still held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

“The government has decided that combat operations have reached their conclusion. Our security forces have been instructed to end the use of heavy calibre guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons which could cause civilian casualties,” the presidential secretariat said.

“Our security forces will confine their attempts to rescuing civilians who are held hostage and give foremost priority to saving civilians,” it said.

The defence ministry later clarified that there was no ceasefire and blamed “media illusionists” of twisting the government announcement as if to mean that military operations against the LTTE had been called off.

The ministry said the troops would continue with “the humanitarian operations to rescue the remaining 15,000-20,000 people held hostage by the LTTE” in the coastal belt of Mullaitivu district. But it would avoid the use of heavy calibre weaponry “coinciding with its zero civilian casualty policy”.

The death and destruction in the island’s north have caused widespread revulsion but Colombo appeared determined to pursue its military offensive until it crushed the LTTE.

Fresh fighting broke out Monday in Mullaitivu district about 395 km from capital Colombo, where the LTTE has been squeezed into an area less than 10 sq km area.

During the operations against the guerrillas, the Sri Lankan fighter jets had pounded the LTTE strongholds while its artillery rained shells in the rebel areas.

But Colombo Monday put a stop to the use of heavy firepower.

The defence ministry quoted an unnamed ministry official as saying that the decision was an exhibit “of its grave concern to avoid any form of collateral damage while surging into the remaining 10 sq km swathe” still with the Tigers.

“This is the extension of what the security forces have been continuing since the fall of Mullaitivu as terrorists resorted to taking thousands of civilians hostage,” the official said.

The ministry official stressed that the government’s decision was not a reaction to any “international pressure” but timed with the success of the world’s largest hostage rescue operation.

“Security forces are now reaching victory, combat mission reaching its conclusion and in no form will leave a breather for the internationally banned terrorist outfit or its leaders who are much wanted for thousands of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” the official has been quoted as saying.

The Sri Lankan move came amid the visit of UN humanitarian chief John Holmes who is here to assess the needs of the tens of thousands of civilians who fled rebel-held areas or are still trapped in the war zone.

It also came a day after the LTTE announced a unilateral ceasefire, which was promptly rejected by the government as a “joke”.

Amid escalating street protests in Tamil Nadu, India had Friday sent two envoys, National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, to urge Sri Lanka to end offensive operations.

Early Monday morning, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi got into the act by suddenly launching a hunger strike on the beachfront in Chennai to demand a ceasefire in Sri Lanka.

While thousands of supporters gathered and sporadic violence erupted across Tamil Nadu, the National Security Council of Sri Lanka met in Colombo and announced it was ending its “combat operations”, a move that was promptly conveyed to India.

Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram, a Tamil himself, then telephoned Karunanidhi and conveyed the decision. The chief minister ended his hunger strike.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown Monday, meanwhile, sent his International Development Minister Mike Foster to Sri Lanka “to conduct a humanitarian assessment” of the situation.

According to latest statistics, over 3,000 people fled the war zone and entered the government-controlled areas Sunday, taking the total number of civilian escapees to 111,512 in one week.

The Unicef said 50 tonnes of airlifted emergency relief supplies landed in Colombo Monday to be distributed to the Tamil civilians now in makeshift camps in Sri Lanka’s north.

Many thousands are in hospital after suffering grievous wounds in artillery shelling, aerial attacks and landmine explosions, blamed both on the military and the LTTE.

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