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Sri Lanka rebels gun down 19 fleeing people: military
Tue Feb 10, 2009 9:53am EST
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By Ranga Sirilal
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Tamil Tiger rebels gunned down 19 people fleeing Sri Lanka's war zone and the bodies were carried among the more than 1,000 civilians who reported to army-held areas on Tuesday, the military said.
And the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had begun an operation to carry 400 sick and wounded people out of the war zone by boat, moving them to a chartered ferry with the help of local fishermen and their small boats.
The number of people fleeing fighting between Sri Lanka's army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has picked up sharply in the past week, with the separatist rebels now confined to less than 175 square km (67 sq miles).
The United Nations said on Tuesday it was preparing to help up to 150,000 people once they came to government-controlled areas.
The U.N. and others say there are 250,000 civilians trapped in the war zone, but the government says the number is half that.
Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said those who reached army-held areas on Tuesday told authorities the LTTE had shot at dozens of fleeing people.
"A total of 1,057 civilians arrived today. The LTTE terrorists had fired on them, killing 19 and injuring 69 others," Nanayakkara said. He said those fleeing the fighting carried the bodies with them.
That brings to 28,226 the total number of people who have escaped the war zone this year, according to the military -- nearly all of them in the past week.
Nearly 50,000 soldiers are converging on that area in the Indian Ocean island's northeast, aiming to deal a death blow to a civil war that has flared off and on since 1983 and is now one of Asia's longest-running conflicts.
The military said people streamed out despite a suicide blast it blamed on a female LTTE fighter disguised as a civilian, which killed 29 civilians and soldiers and wounded 90 at a refugee registration center on Monday.
The ICRC said on Tuesday it had begun loading 400 patients from a makeshift hospital in the coastal village of Puttumatalan, and an unknown number of their relatives, onto a ferry after agreeing safe passage for them.
"It is a difficult operation, so hopefully it will be setting off shortly and will be going to Trincomalee," ICRC spokeswoman Sarasi Wijeratne said, referring to another eastern port.
Sri Lanka's government has pledged safe passage for civilians but refused any calls for a ceasefire against the
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