Sri Lanka to open safe passage for civilians

Human rights groups and ethnic Tamils say military shelling civilian areas, accuse rebels of holding civilians as human shields.

sri lankans flee 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
sri lankans flee 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Sri Lankan government appealed Friday for tens of thousands of civilians to flee the northern war zone and said it would open two safe passages in the area for the exodus. The civilians are trapped along with the Tamil Tiger rebels inside a shrinking strip of land along the northeast coast. Human Rights Watch said last week at least 2,000 civilians had been killed in recent weeks. International officials have issued increasing appeals to the military and the rebels to halt their battle temporarily to allow the civilians to escape, but the government has refused, saying it was on the verge of crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and ending the quarter-century civil war. Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona said Friday that the government was calling on the trapped civilians to flee to government-controlled areas to the north and south along a coastal road. "The idea is to ask the people to ... walk away," he said. "We would hope that the LTTE, if they really are interested in their people, would let those people go." Kohona said the move did not amount to a temporary cease-fire, but added the government had not shelled that road in any event. It was unclear how the government's announcement would change the situation on the ground. With most communication to the north severed, the rebels could not be reached for comment. However, they have repeatedly appealed for a cease-fire. The United Nations cautiously welcomed the appeal. "Any additional measure to relieve the suffering of civilians is welcome," said UN spokesman Gordon Weiss. "Let's watch and see if this translates into an effective safe passage for trapped civilians." Aid groups estimate 200,000 civilians are squeezed into an area of less than 19 square miles. The government says the number is closer to 70,000. Human rights groups and ethnic Tamils who have fled the area accused the military of shelling civilian areas inside the war zone and accused the rebels of holding the civilians as human shields. Both sides deny the accusations. The government's announcement came hours after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon renewed his call for both sides to suspend hostilities to allow civilians to flee and urgently needed aid to be delivered. "There is an urgent need to bring this conflict to a speedy end without further loss of civilian life," UN spokeswoman Michele Montas said, speaking for Ban. The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state for the Tamil minority, which suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting. In recent months, the military has driven the rebels out of much of their de facto state in the north. Residents of the war zone said they were facing relentless shelling that killed dozens of civilians Wednesday and Thursday and left many scrounging for food to survive. "It's been four days since my family has eaten," Mary Jacinta Balachandran, 46, told The Associated Press by telephone as she waited at a makeshift clinic in the war zone. Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara denied the army, which is fighting to take control of the last rebel-held town, was responsible for the shelling. The government has barred independent reporters from the area, making it impossible to verify accounts of the civilians' plight or the fighting raging around them. The army said it recovered the bodies of 33 rebel fighters who launched a pre-dawn attack on troops in the area Thursday. It gave no indication of military casualties.