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Sri Lanka Tells Civilians to Evacuate to Safe Areas

In Sri Lanka, the government says it cannot ensure the safety of tens of thousands of civilians living in areas where the army is fighting Tamil Tiger rebels. The government is asking the civilians to evacuate to safe areas, but it is not easy for those trapped in the war zone to leave.

Amid growing calls from the international community and aid agencies to protect civilians caught in the country's northern war zone, Sri Lanka's Media Center for National Security says that it can only guarantee the safety and security of those who enter a 35-square kilometer "safety zone" in the northern Mullaitivu district.

Military offensive against rebels in final stage

The director general of the media center, Lakshman Hulugalle says, as the military offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels enters the final stage, the government cannot ensure the safety of civilians who continue to live in areas controlled by the rebels also known as the LTTE.

"When they are among the LTTE-ers [Tamil Tigers] and when there is [an] operation going on, sometimes we cannot identify them," Hullugalle explained. "So what government has said is we can't give assurance. If they come into the war-free zone, no-war zone, then we give them an assurance, 100 percent, that we protect them."

Hulugalle says about 5,000 people have come into the "safe zone" in recent weeks.

But that is only a fraction of the estimated quarter-of-a-million civilians who are trapped in a 300-square-kilometer pocket in the northeast to which the Tamil rebels have been confined.

Civilians are under fire

Aid agencies say these civilians are coming under a daily barrage of artillery firing, shelling and bombing. Even medical facilities have been hit.

The United Nations spokesman in Colombo, Gordon Weiss, says recent fighting has exacted a huge toll on civilians, including children.

"What we know of civilians is that they are suffering pretty heavy casualties," Weiss said. "Our own staff witnessed the death and wounding of some dozens of people last weekend. They have seen a convoy come out with 200 critically wounded, including 50 critically wounded children, some as young as just a few months old."

Independent observers say it is not easy for the civilians to flee the war zone. They say the rebels do not allow the civilians to leave the area because they are a buffer between them and the army. They say the ethnic Tamils are also reluctant to live in army camps.

Army captures rebel leader's bunker

The Sri Lankan army said Tuesday it has captured an elaborate underground bunker complex, believed to have been the home of Tamil Tiger leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, as well as the rebels' last jungle airstrip.

The army says the two-storey bunker, hidden in a coconut grove, had electricity generators and medical supplies and was Prabhakaran's main hideout. The whereabouts of the rebel leader are not known and some people believe he may already have fled the country.

The Tamil rebels have been fighting since 1983 for an independent Tamil homeland. The government says it is on the verge of defeating the guerrillas.