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Sri Lanka: 80,000 Tamils flee war zone

By T V Sriram in Colombo
April 22, 2009 13:31 IST
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Making a final push to overrun the last patch of territory held by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Sri Lankan forces on Wednesday pushed deeper, capturing six kilometres of the 18 km 'No Fire Zone' as thousands of trapped Tamils civilians continued to flee the northern war zone.

Over 80,000 civilians have so far crossed over to government controlled 'safe zone' till this morning, a Defence Ministry spokesman said. UN and other aid agencies estimates are that there could be anywhere up to 200,000 people trapped in the No Fire Zone.

Satellite imagery of the embattled zone released for the first time showed that tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils were squeezed into the last small strip of land controlled by the Tamil Tigers.

The imagery released by the US State Department shows about 25,000 tents packed into a coastal strip about 18 sq km, prompting US and Red Cross officials to ask Colombo for a pause to enable women and children escape the conflict zone.

At least 46 rebels were killed in fresh fighting as Sri Lankan troops moved north of Ampalawanpokkani in hunt for the LTTE supremo V Prabhakaran and his top aides with top government officials saying that they were still holed up in the area.

A top LTTE leader had said yesterday that Prabhakaran was still in the battle zone and leading his men in conflict.

After capturing Putumathalan on Tuesday, which triggered off the civilian exodus, Sri Lankan troops on Wednesday moved deeper into the No Fire Zone, capturing Vishwamadukulam and Alankulam in search operation, came across 22 dead bodies of LTTE cadres.

In Mullaitivu, two top LTTE cadres, identified as Kaladen and Wijayan were killed in an operation by army commandos in east Putumathalan.

Sri Lankan forces have in recent months ousted the rebels from all their strongholds and boxed them into a tiny stretch of land north of Mullaitivu which was previously deemed as a 'No Fire Zone' to protect civilians.

"Our forces have captured one-third of the 18 km No Fire Zone," Sri Lankan Defence Ministry spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said.

Meanwhile, based on the number of tents that came up on the satellite imagery, experts estimate that there could have been 125,000 people in the conflict zone before 80,000 fled during the last two days.

Human rights groups say the LTTE are holding many people in the enclave against their will and using them as human shields. They have also accused the government forces of using indiscriminate shelling in the No Fire Zone.

The pro-LTTE Tamilnet on Tuesday alleged that more than 1,000 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured in firing by the Lankan troops in the No Fire Zone.

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T V Sriram in Colombo
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