In Sri Lanka, authorities have given Tamil Tiger rebels a 24-hour deadline to surrender.  The military operation to crush the rebels is in the final stages, but there has been international concern over the safety of thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone.    

Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, who is defense affairs spokesman, says Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran and his group must surrender by noon, Tuesday, or face a "military course of action."

The government warning came after the army said that 25,000 civilians trapped with the rebels in a small strip of territory have fled the area. The military says the exodus started after troops broke through a long earthen wall which was blocking their exit.

Minister Rambukwella told VOA that the army's entry into the last area held by the rebels has made it safer for civilians to cross over.  He says footage from an aerial video shows that many people are escaping, while many others are waiting to cross over.

"The influx is huge, I think thousands are moving out of this no-war zone to safe areas . It is happening," he said.  "We will have the photographic material as evidence and we can see on the screens now people moving in thousands."   

The army says at least 17 civilians, including women and children, were killed when three suicide bombers detonated explosives to deter people from escaping.

There is no independent verification of events in the war zone, from which reporters are barred.

An estimated 100,000 civilians have been caught in a 17-square-kilometer "no-fire" zone into which the rebels are confined after losing all the territory they controlled.  The government and the United Nations have accused the rebels of using the civilians as human shields and preventing them from leaving.  The rebels say the civilians are not willing to go out because they do not trust the army.

The plight of the civilians has prompted concern and numerous calls by the international community for a truce to allow them to escape.

Minister Rambukwella says the government will not suspend its campaign to defeat the rebels, who are also known as the LTTE.  

"We reiterated and we kept on saying that we are not interested in going into any truce or any kind of pauses or any kind of ceasefires with the LTTE.  Enough is enough," he said.  "We have had 30 years of experience and we have experienced the calamities that have resulted of these ceasefires.  We are now proved right.  We were very confident that our forces will do the needful and it is happening now, you can see it with your own eyes."

The rebel campaign for a separate Tamil homeland began in 1983 after complaints of discrimination against the Tamil minority community by the Sinhala majority.