Reuters - Sri Lanka's two-day humanitarian truce ended on Wednesday and the military announced it was now free to begin a final assault to end the 25-year war against the rebel Tamil Tigers.
The Sri Lankan military says only 1,000 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels remain, and accuse the fighters of holding around 100,000 civilians as human shields.
In less than three years, the military has retaken 15,000 square km (5,790 sq mile) from the separatists and pushed them into 17 square km (6.6 sq mile) of coastal coconut groves, where commanders expect to end a war that began in 1983.
The pro-rebel website TamilNet.com on Wednesday said the military had unleashed an assault with rockets, artillery and gunfire in the morning hours.
"It is impossible to assess casualty details, but at least 180 civilians are feared killed within three hours," TamilNet said, quoting its own correspondent.
Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said troops were back on active duty but had not started firing. "We have not commenced any offensive as yet, but the restricted period is over," he said.
U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes told reporters in New York on Wednesday that a two-day humanitarian pause was over and fighting had resumed, including in a no-fire zone.
The pause did not enable significant amounts of aid to get into the no-fire zone or more civilians to escape from the area, which the government continued to shell, Holmes said. This was because the LTTE was not allowing people to leave, he said.
"Not only did this (pause) not allow more civilians to get out, there seemed to be less civilians getting out during the pause than before," Holmes said. "It's clear that the LTTE did not allow those who wished to leave ... to do so."
"Civilians should not be used as pawns or human shields in this way," he said.
DENIALS FROM BOTH SIDES
Holmes also urged the government to stop shelling the densely populated no-fire zone and to "...live up to the promises they've made on repeated occasions not to use heavy weapons in this area ... I'm afraid they have been doing that."
Britain and France also condemned the Tigers for refusing to let civilians leave the conflict zone and urged the president to announce a new pause in the fighting to enable civilians to leave the area and aid agencies to get help to them.
"We urge President (Mahinda) Rajapaksa to announce a new pause," the two nations' foreign ministers said in a statement. "We also urge the LTTE to allow civilians to move to safety."
The Tigers have repeatedly accused the government of shelling civilian areas, which the military denies.
The United Nations has said the military has fired into civilian areas, while the Tigers are shooting people who try to flee, firing from populated areas and forcibly recruiting people as young as 15. Both deny the charges.
Verifying accounts from the battlefield is hard as independent media are restricted and both sides exaggerate details.
Rajapaksa ordered troops to go to a defence-only stance for the two-day Tamil and Sinhala New Year on Monday and Tuesday, and urged the LTTE to surrender and let civilians out.
The LTTE said the truce was too short and designed to ease international pressure for a full ceasefire. The rebels say people are staying by choice, despite the fact more than 65,000 have fled Tiger areas this year.
The government says the Tigers have repeatedly manufactured civilian crises to build pressure for a truce so that it can then re-arm, and has refused to offer the LTTE any choice except surrender or annihilation.