Sri Lanka rejects ceasefire with Tamil rebels
AFP - Saturday, January 31
COLOMBO (AFP) - - Sri Lanka on Friday rejected growing international calls for a ceasefire amid fears for the safety of 250,000 civilians trapped as the military pushed for victory against Tamil rebels.
Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said there would be no let-up in the military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) despite calls for a truce.
"There will be no ceasefire," the minister told reporters after a meeting with Colombo-based diplomats. "We will continue with our military operations and we will continue to liberate areas which have not been liberated so far."
His remarks came amid growing worries about the safety of civilians caught in the embattled northeast of the island, where the defence ministry says it is conducting the final phase of operations against Tiger guerrillas.
A group of international relief organisations, including UN agencies, appealed to the LTTE to allow civilians to leave areas under its control and asked the government to stop blocking international aid.
"We call upon the LTTE to allow full freedom of movement to all civilians, and to allow safe passage for those wishing to leave the conflict area," the aid agencies said.
The European Union's Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel called for a halt to the conflict -- which the Sri Lankan government says it is now on the verge of winning.
"This is an escalating humanitarian catastrophe. We are extremely worried about the terrible situation facing people trapped in the fighting," Michel said in Brussels.
Meanwhile British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Friday he was "extremely concerned" about the plight of civilians trapped by the fighting.
"Military advances by the Sri Lankan government against the LTTE have come at a severe humanitarian cost," Miliband said in a statement issued by the Foreign Office.
The Sri Lankan government pulled out of a Norwegian-brokered truce with the rebels a year ago and has since been battling to dismantle the LTTE's northern mini-state.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said 250,000 people were trapped in the rebel-held areas.
Human Rights Minister Samarasinghe said the international relief agencies and rights groups said the number of people trapped was lower.
"Not more than 120,000 civilians are left behind the front lines. The number reported by international agencies includes many names that have been duplicated."
The minister also said Tiger combatants were dressed in civilians clothes and they were counted as civilian victims if they were wounded or killed.
Following months of heavy fighting, government troops have captured the LTTE's political capital of Kilinochchi and, last weekend, the rebels' main military base of Mullaittivu on the northeast coast.
Fighting is now concentrated around a 300-square-kilometre (110-square-mile) patch of jungle territory near Mullaittivu still in rebel hands.
In the latest fighting, troops recovered the bodies of seven Tiger rebels while another eight were killed by army snipers, the defence ministry said Friday.
It said troops had also captured a rural hospital where the Tigers had been treating their war-wounded. It was not immediately clear if there were any patients at the hospital when troops took it.
"I urge the LTTE, within the next 48 hours, to allow free movement of civilians to ensure their safety and security," the island's President Mahinda Rajapakse said in a statement late Thursday.
"For all those civilians, I assure a safe passage to a secure environment," he said, attempting to counter the rebels' claims that Tamil civilians were mistreated when crossing into areas controlled by the Sinhalese-dominated army.
Sri Lanka's navy sank a suspected Tiger suicide boat Friday off the island's northeastern coast, a military official said.
The guerrillas still hold a 30-kilometre (18-mile) stretch of coastline in the district.
There was no immediate comment from the rebels on the latest developments.
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