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Sri Lanka Military Contends Civilian Safety Paramount as Final Offensive Continues

Military commanders on the ground in northern Sri Lanka say no civilians have been killed in their offensive in the last several months to defeat the Tamil Tigers. A United Nations report says 6,500 civilians have died in the fighting since the beginning of the year. But in a rare briefing in the Northern Province for correspondents permitted to travel there, top-ranking officers claimed only Tamil Tiger fighters have been killed by military forces.

International human rights group claim many of the civilians deaths that have occurred this year are due to military action.

Sri Lankan government ministers say such organizations, as well as the United Nations, are dupes for the propaganda of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which is listed as a terrorist organization by many nations.

With the LTTE's total defeat, possibly just days away, the Army has invoked what it calls a zero tolerance policy regarding civilian deaths.

It vows to rescue thousands of civilians trapped in the small sliver of coastal land where the rebels are still offering resistance.

Brigadier Shavendra Silva, who commands the 58th Division, said "Poor civilians, Tamil people who are being taken as hostages, who are taken as a human shield, are without arms. So they can't resist these people with people who are keeping weapons."

The military says some Tamil civilians, including children as young as 11, have been forced to take up arms by the rebels and fight the Sri Lankan Army.

The commander of the 57th Division, Major General Jagath Dias, speaking to VOA News at a lagoon adjacent to where the latest fighting is occurring, said elite troops with light weapons are shrinking rebel-held territory while ensuring no civilians are killed.

"We might suffer casualties but that sacrifice is good enough to get those people, innocent civilians, back," he said.

The Army is still suffering casualties at the hands of the estimated several hundred remaining rebels. Correspondents witnessed a badly wounded soldier brought to a landing zone for Air Force helicopters, presumably for medical evacuation. The stretcher bearing the injured man was ordered re-loaded into the ambulance, which then drove off. Shortly thereafter, another ambulance with casualties arrived, but also quickly left the area.

The military is reiterating it has stopped using heavy weapons, noting that the remaining Tiger fighters have 120-millimeter guns which could be causing the explosions heard by troops and journalists.

The military denies accusations that it shelled a makeshift hospital Saturday inside the so-called safe zone where the fighting continues. It said the rebels could have set off explosions there. Reports, including those posted on a pro-Tamil web site, say more than 60 people died and nearly 90 were injured from the detonations at the hospital in Mullivaikal.