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US Urges Protection for Civilians as Sri Lanka Conflict Reaches 'Decisive Point'

The United States Tuesday appealed for protection of civilians trapped in northern Sri Lanka as the 26-year conflict between the Colombo government and Tamil Tiger rebels of the LTTE reaches what the State Department calls a "decisive point." More than 60,000 Tamil civilians are believed to be trapped in the last remaining strip of territory held by the rebels.

The State Department is appealing to both sides in the conflict to spare civilians as the brutal conflict in Sri Lanka moves into what could be its final days.

A government offensive has pushed the Tamil Tigers, who once controlled about a third of the country, into a tiny strip of beachfront near the northern tip of the island. The strip less than two kilometers wide, has been designated a safe zone for Tamil civilians sheltering there.

But officials here say there has been shelling by both sides in and out of the strip and the civilian casualty toll may be heavy, but there is no presence of United Nations or other independent monitors to confirm this.

The officials, who provided reporters with dramatic U.S. aerial photographs of the refugee-packed area, said nearly half of the estimated 125,000 people in the strip earlier this week may have been able to escape over the last two days.

But there is grave concern that civilians being used, U.S. officials say, as human shields by the rebels may be in grave risk as government forces try to clear out the estimated 1,000 remaining Tamil Tigers and bring the war to an end.

Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Michael Owen says the world's longest running active conflict appears to be at a decisive point.

"We see the potential for major developments within the next 48 hours," said Michael Owen. "We urge both parties to exercise maximum restraint to protect civilians who are trapped by the fighting and allow free movement of civilians out of the conflict zone. We also urge the government of Sri Lanka to permit the international community to monitor the situation and to assist in ensuring humanitarian standards for the refugees."

The State Department, in a formal statement earlier Tuesday, said there were credible reports of increasing casualties, including incidents in which LTTE rebels have fired on civilians trying to leave the no-fire zone.

It called on the Sri Lankan government to allow U.N. and International Red Cross personnel access to all sites where authorities are processing displaced persons leaving the beach area, out of concern U.S. officials say about possible revenge attacks against Tamil refugees.

The United States has long considered the LTTE, whose tactics have included suicide attacks against Sri Lankan officials, a terrorist organization. But the State Department is appealing to government authorities for restraint and patience in dealing with LTTE holdouts, and to seek a diplomatic end to the fighting.

A senior State Department official said Colombo authorities believe they can defeat the LTTE remnants in the next few days. He said the way the war ends - either with bloodshed or a peaceful stand-down - "will have major implications" for long-term peace and ethnic tranquility in Sri Lanka.

The LTTE has been fighting to carve out a Tamil enclave in the northern part of the majority Sinhalese country. The U.S. official said a humanitarian catastrophe, in which potentially thousands of Tamil civilians are killed, would be "absolutely a terrible thing" for the country's future harmony.

He said the United States is engaged in top-level diplomacy on Sri Lanka, trying among other things, to get other countries with influence on the Colombo government to counsel restraint.