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The Sri Lankan army has begun a two-day truce and is urging Tamil Tiger rebels to allow civilians to leave the northern war zone. The government declared the ceasefire in the wake of growing international calls for a halt in the military campaign to crush the guerrillas. 

A government spokesman says the suspended offensive operations against Tamil Tiger rebels began midnight Sunday.  He says troops have been told to fire their weapons only if attacked.

The brief two-day ceasefire declared by the government coincides with the Sinhala and Tamil New Year.

The Director of the Media Center for National Security, Lakshman Hullugale, says the government hopes the Tamil Tigers, also known as the LTTE, will allow civilians to evacuate the narrow coastal strip to which the rebels are confined.

"We expect the LTTE terrorists to release the innocent civilians," said Lakshman Hullugale. "This is what we are looking for, that is the most important thing."

It is not clear if civilians are actually evacuating the area. In the past, Tamil Tiger rebels have prevented people from fleeing and used them as human shields.

The United Nations estimates that 100,000 civilians are caught in the battle zone. The world body has welcomed the halt in fighting as a useful first step, but says it is less than the full humanitarian pause it had pressed for.   

There have been widespread calls from the international community urging the Sri Lankan government to protect civilians from the fighting, in which thousands have already been killed or wounded. 

In recent days, Tamil communities in many countries have also stepped up protests demanding more international pressure on Colombo to end hostilities.

But the government has ruled out halting its military campaign until it crushes the guerrilla group. 

Government spokesman Huluggale says fighting will end only if the rebels surrender. 

"During this festive season, if they lay down arms, the war is over," he said. "We don't want to kill anybody, but what we want, the day the LTTE  lay down arms and surrender, the war will be over."

The United Nations has warned that civilian casualties could be high if the army moves into the area to take out the remaining rebel fighters.

The rebels began their campaign for an independent Tamil homeland a quarter of a century ago, and were seen as one of the world's most deadly guerrilla groups. But in the last year, the rebels have lost virtually all the territory they once controlled.