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Sri Lanka Considers Pause in Fighting to Let Civilians Escape


In Sri Lanka, the government says it is considering a humanitarian pause in the fighting against Tamil rebels to allow civilians trapped in the country's northern war zone to escape, but is ruling out a truce. The government has been under intense international pressure to help tens of thousands of civilians caught in a military campaign.

Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona says the government is devising strategies to enable civilians to exit the northeast where the army is advancing on Tamil Tiger rebels.

He says security forces will guarantee safe passage for people coming out of the war zone.

"When we see a large number of civilians heading in the direction of our line, we let them through. All sorts of mechanisms are being worked out, and the whole matter is under review and consideration," Kohona said.

Earlier the government declared a "safe zone" for civilians who escape the conflict area. But Tamil rebels have been blamed for preventing many from leaving because they are a buffer between them and the army. The rebels have also forced civilians to fight for them.

The army and the rebels have both been accused of firing and shelling the "safe zone", jeopardizing the lives of civilians.

The government estimates there are about 70,000 civilians in the war zone, while aid agencies say the number could be double that estimate.

Friday, the U.N. Security Council called for a humanitarian pause in the fighting to protect civilians. The United Nations says dozens of civilians trapped in the area are being killed and wounded everyday. International aid agencies say civilians in the area are short of food, water and medical supplies, and have repeatedly urged the government to bring them out.

But Sri Lankan authorities have ruled out a long halt in the fighting. Foreign Secretary Kohona says that would work to the advantage of the rebels, who are now confined to a 25-square-kilometer strip of territory.

"At this stage when they are down on their knees and they are screaming to the international community to bring about a pause so that they can recover. I think it would be totally counterproductive to accommodate that sort of demand from this terrorist group, because what will happen is this war will not end in the near future," Kohona said.

The military says it is in the final stages of defeating the Tamil rebels. The rebels have been fighting for a quarter century for an independent Tamil homeland.

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