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India Extracts Sri Lankan Promise to Protect Tamils in Battle Zone

India says it has extracted promises from Sri Lanka that the military will do its utmost to ensure the safety of civilians caught in the cross-fire between the army and Tamil Tiger rebels.

After a visit to Colombo lasting less than a day, India's foreign minister says Sri Lanka's leaders have pledged to protect hundreds of thousands of Tamils. The civilians are trapped in northeastern Sri Lanka where the military says it has cornered the last of the Tamil Tiger rebels in a patch of jungle.

Indian external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee held emergency meetings Tuesday evening with top Sri Lankan officials, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Mukherjee told reporters in New Delhi that aid organizations should soon be able to directly assist refugees.

"We requested that international agencies like U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, International Red Cross Society Committee and other international organizations who are engaged in the relief, they should be allowed to visit and Sri Lanka authorities should facilitate that," he said.

Diplomats say several hundred thousand people face hunger as food supplies dwindle.

Since access to the area by outsiders is restricted, it is unclear to what extent civilians are suffering. Groups sympathetic to the rebels claim Sri Lanka's army is shelling a designated safe zone and hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured in recent days. The military denies this.

Sri Lankan officials say it is only a matter of time before the Tamil Tiger rebels, who once controlled a virtual mini-state in the north, are vanquished.

Government forces on Sunday captured the last town under rebel control.

Speaking to India's Times Now TV news channel, Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse predicted rebel leader Villupillai Prabhakaran will be neutralized within a few weeks.

"What can he do? Stay in a hole. For how long can be like that? Not different from Saddam Hussein's situation," he said. "So either he has to kill himself or surrender."

The plight of the Tamil Hindus is being closely watched in southern India, which has a substantial Tamil population and parties there traditionally have been sympathetic to the rebels' liberation goal. The insurgents, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, are considered a terrorist organization by more than 30 countries, including India and the United States.

Sri Lanka's government is dominated by the majority Sinhalese, who are mainly Buddhists. Tamils in the north have long resented attempts to repress them by the majority in the south, including the imposition on them of the Sinhalese language.