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    International Appeals for LTTE Surrender, Army Cease-fire Ignored in Sri Lanka

    Both sides in Sri Lanka's civil war are brushing off a non-binding statement of the U.N. Security Council demanding they protect the lives of tens of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting. Medical and humanitarian workers say shelling in the tiny combat zone continues. Sri Lankan officials say thousands of Tamils are fleeing the area by wading across a lagoon despite rebels shooting at the civilians.  

    The U.N. Security Council's appeal for  both sides in the civil war to respect international humanitarian law is falling on deaf ears amid an apparent ceaseless barrage of gunfire and shelling. 

    Civilians trapped in war zone

    At stake are the lives of Tamil civilians trapped in a sandy war zone between the coast and a lagoon where the last remaining hard core rebel fighters are facing an assault from several Army divisions.

    Mahinda Samarasinghe, the disaster management and human rights minister, tells VOA News the 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 Samarasinghe.

    U.S. President Barack Obama called the rebels' use of the civilians as human shields "deplorable" and said they should surrender.

    Hundreds of civilians dead

    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.

    In remarks Wednesday, Mr. Obama  said Sri Lanka needs to act responsibly not to worsen, what he termed, "a humanitarian crisis."

    "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," he said.

    Government denies using mortars

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

    Disaster Management Minister Samarasinghe blames the perception on information disseminated by the rebels and their sympathizers, including doctors, in the combat zone.

    "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," said Samarasinghe.

    The military says it is the rebels who are using artillery and killing innocent people.

    Rebels are not surrendering

    The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are giving no indication of surrender, although they are surrounded by Sri Lankan army and naval forces on the northeastern coast with superior numbers and firepower.

    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.

    The rebels have waged a civil war for the past quarter century for an independent Tamil homeland in the north of the island.  Their tactics of suicide bombings and assassinations have led to the group being labeled as a terrorist organization by many countries, including the United States.


    Steve Herman

    Steve Herman is VOA's Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, based at the State Department.

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