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    Tamil Tigers Claim 150,000 Civilians on Brink of Starvation

    Rebels in Sri Lanka claim some 150,000 people are on the brink of starvation in the territory held by the Tamil Tigers in the northeast.  The Sri Lankan government says the rebels are to blame for the plight of the civilians in the remaining area controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.  The accusations come amid rising international concern over mass civilian suffering in the dwindling war zone.

    A posting on a pro-rebel Web site, attributed to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, claims 150,000 civilians are on the brink of starvation.

    Sri Lanka's government says the civilians - it puts the number at no more than 10,000 - are hostages of the rebels, who claim the military is blocking desperately needed food.

    The head of the Defense Ministry's media center, Lakshman Hulugalle, tells VOA News it is the Tigers who are to blame for anyone starving on the northeastern coast.

    "What we have sent to those areas is not being distributed to the innocent people. It's been robbed by LTTE. This is the only government in the world feeding terrorists and fighting against terrorists," he said.

    A United Nations spokesman tells VOA the world body has "no information about government food going in" recently to the affected area. It says at least 50,000 people are trapped by the fighting.

    The Tamil Tigers have seen their territory shaved down to less than eight square kilometers amid a final offensive by the military.

    Defense spokesman Hulugalle says the rebel remnants - he estimates at 200 to 300 combatants - could be instantly vanquished if not for the precautions government forces are taking to minimize civilian casualties.

    "For the Sri Lanka government and for the forces it's a matter of a few hours. If not for these innocent Tamils we should have crushed LTTE within hours," he said.

    The United Nations' humanitarian chief, John Holmes, is to meet Sunday here with government officials. The United Nations says he will push for enhanced humanitarian missions in and around the conflict zone where access to the tens of thousands of displaced people is very limited.

    The White House, in a statement, is calling on both sides to immediately cease fighting and allow civilians to exit the conflict area. It says aid organizations and journalists should have access to those refugees who have already escaped.


    Steve Herman

    A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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