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Concerns Mount  About Civilian Casualties in Sri Lanka


As Sri Lanka's army battles rebels to establish total control over the north and the coastline, concern is mounting about civilian casualties.

Diplomats and aid organizations say hundreds of thousands of people appear trapped in northern Sri Lanka, as the army encircles the remnants of the fighting force of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is expressing deep concern about the fate of civilians in the crossfire. He is calling on the rebels and the government to respect safety zones and civilian infrastructure.

In Colombo, U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss says there are few humanitarian workers in the area and it is difficult to ascertain the extent of what the international organization now sees as a humanitarian crisis.

"We have a population of 200,000 to 300,000 persons who are cutoff from the rest of Sri Lanka, surrounded by Sri Lankan government military forces," he said. "And, seeded among the population, and in and around them, there are the LTTE fighters who are under severe pressure from the Sri Lankan military and they're fighting a desperate battle for survival."

An internet web site sympathetic to the rebels claims as many as 300 civilians were killed Monday by army shelling inside a government-proclaimed no-fire zone.

The Sri Lankan military denies it fired into the safe zone. There is no way to independently verify the information, including the government's contention the Tamil Tigers are cornered in a small patch of jungle and no longer control any significant territory.

Some journalists Tuesday are being escorted by Sri Lanka's military for a rare visit into the conflict area. They have reported hearing distant heavy weapons fire. A Sri Lankan field commander told them close-quarter battles were underway outside the northeastern town of Puthukkudiyiruppu in the predominately-Tamil Mullaitivu district.

India has dispatched External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to Colombo. He spoke to reporters Tuesday in New Delhi, before his departure.

"LTTE is a been-banned organization in India," he said. "But we are concerned with the plight of the civilians and we shall have to see how the civilians can be protected and they cannot become helpless victims of the situation."

Southern India has a significant Tamil population and one of the Congress Party's allies in the national governing coalition is the DMK, a party sympathetic to the rebels in Sri Lanka.

The insurgents have waged a decades-long struggle against the primarily-Buddhist Sinhalese in the south. At its peak, the LTTE ran a virtual state in the north.

Sri Lanka's government now appears to have virtually vanquished the Tigers as a military threat. However, few in the country expect this will mean the end of the violent struggle by the mainly Hindu Tamils, bitter about their marginalization by the Sinhalese majority.

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