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Tens of Thousands Flee Homes as Sri Lanka Fighting Escalates


International relief organizations in Sri Lanka say there has been a massive influx of refugees in the east of the country, as fighting escalates between the army and Tamil rebels. From VOA's South Asia Bureau in New Delhi, Anjana Pasricha has this report.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says more than 40,000 civilians have fled their homes in the eastern district of Batticaloa in recent days, following fresh clashes between the military and Tamil Tiger rebels.

The area was already crammed with tens-of-thousands of refugees, who have been pouring in since fighting engulfed the region several months ago.

The ICRC spokesman in Sri Lanka, Davide Vignati, says shortages of food and water are emerging at overcrowded refugee camps since the new refugees arrived. But, he says, the situation has not yet reached the crisis stage.

"This new number of displaced civilians bring(s) the total number up to almost 120,000 displaced people presently sheltering in Batticaloa district," Vignati said. "The main problem for the time being is food. New tents and shelter camps should be set up in the coming days to accommodate this new population."

Senadhiraja Jeyananadamoorthy, a member of parliament, says people are being driven from their homes by military artillery fire falling in civilian areas. Jeyananadamoorthy represents the Tamil National Alliance, which is widely seen as a proxy for the Tamil rebels.

The military claims people are fleeing because the rebels are using civilians as human shields.

The rebels have suffered reverses in recent months in the east, where they formerly controlled large swathes of territory. The military has already driven them back from their strongholds along the coast, and is now apparently pushing to drive them out of the remaining pockets that they hold.

Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict turned violent 15 months ago, after four years of relative peace following a 2002 truce. The rebels have been fighting for an autonomous homeland for the country's minority Tamil community since 1983.

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