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Sri Lankan President Assures UN About Protecting Civilians Trapped in War Zone


The Sri Lankan president has assured the United Nations that the military will safeguard civilians as the battle to defeat the Tamil Tiger rebels enters what may be its final phase. The U.N and aid agencies have expressed concern over the danger faced by tens of thousands of civilians who are trapped in a small area with the rebels in the northeast of the country.

A statement from the president's office in Colombo says that President Mahinda Rajapakse has assured United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the offensive to crush the Tamil Tiger rebels will proceed "without harassment to the civilian population."

The promise was made when the United Nations chief telephoned the Sri Lankan president late Thursday to discuss the plight of civilians caught in the war zone.

In recent days the United Nations and aid agencies have said that an estimated quarter of a million civilians caught in a small pocket with the rebels are coming under a barrage of shelling and bombing, and that many have been killed or wounded.

But the government has turned down calls for a brief truce to allow the civilians to leave the area, saying it is on the brink of defeating the rebels. It has however asked civilians to enter a "no war zone" declared by the army.

Army spokesman Udaya Nanayakkara says more than 2,500 civilians have entered the "safe zone," and more are waiting to come.

"Large number of civilians now making their way to the areas, today, at the moment about 600 have come, so we expect more numbers to come into that area," he said.

The army says it is now targeting the remaining fighters of the Tamil Tigers, who are confined to an area of about 175 square kilometers. The military says it has cut them off from all their supply routes after overrunning their largest naval base.

Nanayakkara says the army will finish the operation to crush the guerrillas quickly once the civilians come out.

"It is just a matter of time to move into the area and get hold of them, but as we are to be careful about the civilians there is a delay, but we are progressing steadily," he said.

The rebels have not commented on the government claims, and independent verification is difficult because journalists are not allowed into the war zone.

In the past year, the rebels, who have been fighting for a quarter century for an independent Tamil homeland, have lost all the towns and areas they controlled in the north.

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