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Thousands of Sri Lankan Civilians Flee Rebel, Military Fighting


Sri Lanka's military says it has captured the eastern town of Vakarai from Tamil Tiger rebels. VOA's Suzanne Presto reports from New Delhi that the intensified fighting in the rebel-held east is forcing thousands of civilians to flee their homes.

The communications coordinator of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Colombo, Davide Vignati, told VOA that the exodus from the Vakarai area began early Friday.

"Starting from early this morning, several thousand internally displaced people previously trapped around the hospital of Vakarai started to leave the hospital and to go toward south, trying to reach Batticaloa," he said.

Vignati says that ICRC staff members encountered thousands of civilians at a checkpoint, on their way to government-held areas.

The Red Cross says camps for the displaced are being set up, and humanitarian organizations are working to provide shelter, water and food to the refugees.

Vignati says it is too early to know how many people left the region Friday, and the ICRC has not had access to Vakarai itself in more than one month.

"We are still negotiating with most parties to the conflict to secure access to Vakarai. So far we couldn't yet access Vakarai itself. Probably next week. The last time we had access to Vakarai was 11 of December," he said.

Vakarai, on the northeastern coast, is a major link between rebel-held territories in the east and north.

Those heading towards Batticaloa Friday originally fled their homes in the northeast of the country in October of last year. They soon became trapped in Vakarai as fighting escalated between rebels and the military.

As the military pushed into Vakarai recent days, the refugees were finally able to break out of the town.

Fighting between Tamil separatists and Sri Lanka's government began in 1983, and has claimed more than 67,000 lives. The rebels say the country's ethnic Tamils have been oppressed by the nation's Sinhalese majority.

A ceasefire was brokered by Norway in 2002, but governments since then have rejected rebel demands for an independent homeland in the northeast, and the truce broke down completely late last year.

Regional observers have told VOA they believe the government may attempt to defeat the Tamil Tigers on the battlefield, threatening hopes for a political solution to the conflict.

As government forces clashed with rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam Friday, thousands of internally displaced people set out on foot to flee the rebel-held battleground of Vakarai.