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Sri Lanka Army in Final Assault on Tamil Rebels


Sri Lanka's army says it is moving ahead with a military operation to wipe out the Tamil Tiger rebels after they ignored an ultimatum to surrender. The government says more than 50,000 civilians trapped in the war zone have fled. But concerns for the safety of civilians still stranded in the area are growing.

Soon after the deadline for the Tamil Tigers to surrender passed at noon Tuesday, the army said it captured more territory from the rebels.

The military says it is now in the final stages of an operation to eliminate the rebels who are confined to a narrow sliver of coastal land in the northeast.

The presence of tens of thousands of civilians with rebel fighters had deterred the army from moving into the area. But the government says there has been an exodus of civilians from the war zone since forces opened an exit route by breaching an earthen wall.

The head of the Media Center for National Security, Lakshman Hulugalle says 10,000 civilians had crossed over from the war zone to government controlled areas by noon Tuesday in addition to the 40,000 who fled on Monday.

He says the army is waiting for the remaining civilians to come over before it launches an all out assault against the rebels, also known as the LTTE.

"The forces are going into those areas, and they are proceeding with their own military plans, and our main objective is to get the balance people," said Hulugale. "We believe that there is something like close to 20,000, or a little more than 20,000 left in those areas. Once we get those people, it is a matter of time, a few hours or a day or something to defeat the LTTE terrorism."

But the exodus of civilians, although large, has done little to ease the concerns of the international community and rights groups, which fear the numbers who remain stranded are far larger than government estimates.

In a statement Tuesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross called the situation "catastrophic" and said there could be a "dramatic increase in civilian casualties" in the final offensive by the army. Human Rights Watch has warned that many more civilians will die unless both the rebels and the government show greater concern for their safety. The International Crisis Group called the situation a "humanitarian tragedy."

In a statement on Tuesday, the rebels said a "bloodbath" is prevailing in the war zone, and accused government forces of killing more than 1,000 civilians and wounding another 2,300 in heavy fighting the previous day. The government denied the allegations.

Sri Lanka authorities have rejected all calls for a temporary truce to protect the civilians, saying the rebels are not allowing the civilians to leave.

The country's top leaders have said they are confident of putting an end to the nation's three-decade long ethnic conflict very soon.

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