The United States and Britain have made a joint call for an immediate end to hostilities in Sri Lanka and the evacuation of civilians from the last remaining stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels. The conflict was a major issue in a meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
The joint statement late Tuesday was the most strongly-worded to date by Western powers about the situation in northern Sri Lanka, where hundreds of Tamil civilians have been reported killed in recent days in what is likely the final stage of the country's long civil conflict.
A relentless advance by government forces has pushed the Tamil Tiger rebels and tens of thousands of Tamil civilians into a small remnant of what was formerly a no-fire zone on the country's northeastern coast.
At least 45 civilians died Tuesday in shelling of the last medical facility in the contested area with each side blaming the other for the attack.
In their statement, Secretary Clinton and her British counterpart expressed profound concern about the humanitarian crisis, which Miliband - at a photo session with Clinton - termed a catastrophe.
The two appealed for an immediate end to hostilities and the safe evacuation of civilians. They said the Tamil Tigers must lay down their arms and allow civilians free passage out of the conflict zone.
They said the Sri Lankan government must abide by its stated commitment April 27 to end major combat operations and the use of heavy weapons.
Earlier State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said the United States is working on two fronts, to stop the fighting and to organize aid for the more than 100,000 civilians who have fled the conflict zone since late last month.
"That, of course, is to try and press the Government of Sri Lanka to adhere to international standards for the operations of camps, to press them to stop the use of heavy weapons, to allow civilians to leave the conflict zone," said Ian Kelly. "So that's one track. And of course, the other track is to help these people, to provide humanitarian assistance. And that would be best done, of course, in a coordinated fashion, both through the UN and with our allies."
U.N. Humanitarian chief John Holmes said in Geneva intransigence by both sides had created an absolutely awful situation. He said the rebels were clearly using civilians as human shields in their dwindling stronghold, while the government - despite denials - appeared to still be using heavy weapons.
In their joint statement, Clinton and Miliband called on the sides to permit humanitarian aid workers and supplies into the former safe zone, and for the government to allow international access to all sites where Tamil evacuees were being registered and housed.
They urged a political solution to the conflict, Asia's longest current war, that reconciles all Sri Lankans and gives Tamils and other minorities a meaningful role in the majority-Sinhalese country's political life.