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Thousands of Civilians Flee Sri Lankan War Zone

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The Sri Lankan military says thousands of civilians are braving Tamil rebel attacks to wade across a lagoon and escape the northern war zone. A military spokesman says at least 2,000 people managed to escape. Meanwhile, both sides in the civil war are brushing off a non-binding statement of the United Nations Security Council to protect the lives of tens of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting.

Sri Lanka's military has released video showing aerial images of civilians fleeing across a lagoon to escape the war zone where government troops have surrounded the Tamil Tiger rebels. The military says the civilians were under fire from the rebels as they fled.

This comes as both sides in the civil war have ignored the U.N. Security Council's appeal to respect international humanitarian law, and continue to engage in a constant barrage of gunfire and shelling.

At stake are the lives of thousands of Tamil civilians trapped in a narrow sliver of territory, where the last remaining hard core rebel fighters are facing an army assault.

The government says its military offensive is also a hostage rescue operation.

"The very fact that we have to move inch by inch, fight man to man, street to street and ensuring that civilians are not affected by the fighting that takes place is enough testimony to the bona fides of what we have been saying - that this is a humanitarian operation," said Human Rights Minister Manhinda Samarasinghe.

Shelling in recent days is blamed for the deaths of hundreds of civilians, including children. But with no access by outsiders to the combat zone there is no way to definitively determine who is responsible and how many people have been killed. These scenes, which cannot be authenticated, were released by a pro-rebel network.

In remarks Wednesday about the situation, President Obama denounced the rebels' use of civilians as human shields but he also urged the Sri Lankan government to act responsibly. "The government should stop the indiscriminate shelling that has taken hundreds of innocent lives, including several hospitals, and the government should live up to its commitment to not use heavy weapons in the conflict zone," the president said.

Government officials here bristle at suggestions they are using mortars in the two-square kilometer area where tens of thousands of civilians are trapped.

Minister Samarasinghe, in a VOA interview, blamed the rebels and their sympathizers for the reports. "This is a very clever propaganda ploy that they have been consistently employing internationally to cultivate the feeling that it is the Sri Lankan government forces who are in fact shelling," he said.

The military says it is the rebels who are, in fact, firing artillery and killing innocent people.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are giving no indication of surrender although they are surrounded by Sri Lankan forces.

The military is reluctant to pause while it is on the verge of crushing the rebels because that might hinder attempts to capture or kill Tamil Tiger leaders.

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