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Sri Lanka says combat gives way to rescue
Mon Apr 27, 2009 11:20am EDT
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By C. Bryson Hull
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka on Monday ordered troops to stop using heavy weapons against the Tamil Tiger rebels, and instead focus on protecting and rescuing tens of thousands of people still trapped in the last rebel pocket.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) immediately accused the government of disregarding its own commitment by launching two air raids on the tiny rebel-held area.
Sri Lanka's announcement came a day after it dismissed an attempt to declare a truce by the rebels, now cornered in less than 10 square km (4 sq mile) of coastline by 50,000 troops fighting to finish Asia's longest modern war.
"Combat operations have reached their conclusion," a statement from President Mahinda Rajapaksa's office said. Soldiers would "confine their attempts to rescuing civilians who are held hostage and give foremost priority to saving civilians."
Troops have been ordered not to use heavy-caliber guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons, the statement said.
Nonetheless, troops kept moving forward, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.
"The rescue operation is continuing today," he said. Special forces, commandos and snipers have been deployed, he said.
Analysts said the announcement appeared designed to mollify
diplomatic pressure for a ceasefire, which Sri Lanka has ruled out given the LTTE's history of using breaks in the fighting to rearm and its rejection of two government truce offers this year.
The conventional war's impending end will leave Sri Lanka facing the challenges of healing years of division and boosting an economy beset by a declining currency, falling exports of tea and garments and low foreign exchange reserves.
It is seeking a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund loan and business executives are optimistic the war's end will bring foreign investment back, but the LTTE has warned it will stage guerrilla attacks on economic targets as it has done before.
The rebels have vowed no surrender in their fight for a separate state for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, a struggle that began in the early 1970s and erupted into civil war in 1983.
For weeks before Monday's move, the military had said it was only using small arms in order to protect civilians in what it has dubbed the largest hostage rescue operation in the world.
"I don't see any substantial change. This would probably be in deference to international opinion," said Col. R. Hariharan, who was head of military intelligence for the Indian army during its 1987-1990 peacekeeping mission in Sri Lanka. Continued...
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