In Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger rebels have denied accusations by the United Nations that they are shooting at civilians to prevent them from leaving the conflict zone in the north. But concern is growing about the risks faced by a quarter of a million civilians who are caught in the battle raging between the rebels and the Sri Lankan military.
A day after the United Nations said it has credible reports that civilians trying to cross the battle lines in northeastern Sri Lanka have been shot at, and sometimes killed by the Tamil Tigers, a swift denial came from the rebels.
The Tamil Rehabilitation Organization - a front group for the rebels - says the U.N. has leveled the allegation to hide its "own failures". It accuses the U.N. of withdrawing its local staff from the war zone and shedding its responsibility of taking care of civilians.
After losing their strongholds, the rebels, also known as the LTTE, are now confined to a small strip of jungle along with an estimated 250,000 ethnic Tamil civilians.
Absence of civilians could leave rebels vulnerable
The head of Colombo's National Peace Council, Jehan Perera, says, in recent weeks, there have been many reports that rebels are forcibly keeping these people in the war zone.
He says the LTTE does not want the civilians to leave because it will make the rebels vulnerable to the full fire power of the military.
"What this indicates is that the LTTE is feeling very desperate and they are very fearful that if the civilians leave, that they will be isolated there and this would enable the government forces to come in with their heavy weaponry and eliminate them," Perera explained.
Rebels recruiting children
Aid agencies say hundreds of civilians have been killed or wounded in recent weeks as they come under artillery firing or bombing as the military advances to crush the rebels.
The U.N. says the rebels are forcibly recruiting children and have recruited a U.N. worker into their ranks. It says even a "no-fire zone" declared by the government for civilians who escape has not been spared from the fighting.
Jehan Perera says thousands of civilians have sought refuge in the last week, but continue to be caught in the cross fire.
"The problem is that the LTTE then goes into the safe zone with their guns and fires at the military and then the military in turn often fires back at the LTTE, with the result [there are] civilian casualties," he said. "So it is quite a horrendous situation for civilians who are trapped there."
So far both the government and the rebels have ignored repeated calls by the U.N., other aid agencies and several countries to halt the conflict briefly to allow the civilians to leave.
The government says it is close to defeating the rebels and cannot stop in the last stages of a military campaign, which it hopes will put an end to a quarter century long struggle by the rebels for an independent Tamil homeland.