Government rejects calls for truce with Tamil Tigers

Sri Lanka has rejected international calls for a ceasefire after the International Red Cross Committee warned that hundreds of civilians had been killed as Sri Lanka forces led an offensive against Tamil Tigers in the North of the country.


AFP - Sri Lanka Friday rejected growing international calls for a ceasefire amid fears for the safety of 250,000 civilians trapped as the military pushed for victory against Tamil rebels.

Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said there would be no let-up in the military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) despite calls for a truce.

"There will be no ceasefire," the minister told reporters after meeting Colombo-based diplomats. "We will continue with our military operations and we will continue to liberate areas which have not been liberated so far."

His remarks came amid growing worries about the safety of civilians, including tens of thousands of children, caught in the embattled northeast of the island.

Sri Lanka's defence ministry says it is conducting the final phase of operations against Tiger guerrillas in a bid to end Asia's longest-running ethnic conflict. Tiger rebels took up arms in 1972.

The UN agency for children asked both Sri Lanka's government and the LTTE, to give "absolute priority" to the safety of children and the civilian population caught up in the fighting.

"Tens of thousands of children" were trapped in the fighting between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels, with many killed or wounded, UNICEF said Friday.

Children as young as 10 days old had been wounded, UNICEF said in a statement.

UNICEF did not give figures, but the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said that "hundreds" of civilians have been killed this month and "scores" wounded. Sri Lanka's government denies it targets civilians.

"We have clear evidence that children are being caught in the crossfire, and that children are being injured and killed," said UNICEF's Regional Director for South Asia, Daniel Toole.

A group of international relief organisations, including UN agencies, appealed to the LTTE to allow civilians to leave areas under its control and asked the government to stop blocking international aid.

"We call upon the LTTE to allow full freedom of movement to all civilians, and to allow safe passage for those wishing to leave the conflict area," the aid agencies said.

The European Union's Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel called for a halt to the conflict -- which the Sri Lankan government says it is now on the verge of winning.

"This is an escalating humanitarian catastrophe. We are extremely worried about the terrible situation facing people trapped in the fighting," Michel said in Brussels.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Friday he was "extremely concerned" about the plight of civilians trapped by the fighting.

"Military advances by the Sri Lankan government against the LTTE have come at a severe humanitarian cost," Miliband said in a statement issued by the Foreign Office in London.

The Sri Lankan government pulled out of a Norwegian-brokered truce with the rebels a year ago and has since been battling to dismantle the LTTE's northern mini-state.

Following months of heavy fighting, government troops have captured the LTTE's political capital of Kilinochchi and, last weekend, the rebels' main military base of Mullaittivu on the northeast coast.

Fighting is now concentrated around a 300-square-kilometre (110-square-mile) patch of jungle territory near Mullaittivu still in rebel hands.

In the latest fighting, troops recovered the bodies of seven Tiger rebels while another eight were killed by army snipers, the defence ministry said Friday.

"I urge the LTTE, within the next 48 hours, to allow free movement of civilians to ensure their safety and security," the island's President Mahinda Rajapakse said in a statement late Thursday.

There was no immediate comment from the rebels on the latest developments.


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