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Thousands Reported Fleeing Sri Lankan Fighting


Aid workers say thousands of people are fleeing a town in eastern Sri Lanka where fighting between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels has raged for more than a week. The fighting goes on as a senior peace envoy arrived in Sri Lanka in an effort to save a ceasefire that some observers say exists in name only.

Staff from the International Committee of the Red Cross, or I.C.R.C., say they have reports that more than 25,000 people are trying to escape fighting around the eastern town of Muttur.

The town, near the city of Trincomalee, is usually held by Sri Lankan government forces, which are fighting Tamil Tiger guerrillas. Civilians reportedly are fleeing by foot through the surrounding jungle.

I.C.R.C. spokesman Vignati Davide says the government has indicated it is willing to open a "humanitarian corridor" that would allow aid workers to reach civilians stuck in Muttur. But they have no word yet from the Tamil Tiger rebels.

"In principle we got this green light, but without the green light from the other side, it means from the Tigers, we don't risk for the moment to send our staff," said Davide.

It is the 10th day of fighting around Muttur in the eastern district of Trincomalee - a traditional flashpoint for hostilities. The government launched air strikes on the area last week, when the rebels refused to open an irrigation channel, blocking water to government-held land.

Since then, the two sides have exchanged artillery and mortar fire. Local officials say the Tamil Tigers have held positions within Muttur, prompting civilians to leave their homes for the relative safety of churches and schools.

Davide says the I.C.R.C. estimates at least 125 injured people are stuck in Muttur, some of them hurt when one of the buildings where civilians took shelter was hit by artillery fire. He says local medical personnel would likely be overwhelmed by the number of injured.

"There is a local doctor from the Muttur hospital, and we succeeded in bringing him some medicaments [medicine]," he said. "So the doctor is working and trying to take care of the injured, but it's clear the number is so huge that we don't know exactly how he could work over the past 24 hours."

Senior Norwegian envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer arrived in the capital, Colombo, Friday in an effort to stop the situation from degenerating into all-out war. Norway brokered a 2002 cease-fire agreement between the government and the rebels, which both sides say they remain committed to.

The fighting is the worst violence since the cease-fire was signed. Analysts say both sides have been guilty of cease-fire violations since the beginning of this year, leading to the deaths of an estimated 850 people.

More than 60,000 died during 20 years of fighting between the government, which is predominantly ethnic Sinhalese, and the rebels, who demanded independence for areas in the north and east of the country dominated by the Tamil minority.