Sri Lankan civilians flee rebel-held areas for second day

Sri LankaColombo : Civilians fled Tamil rebel-held areas in north-eastern Sri Lanka for a second-consecutive day Tuesday, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.

He said the exact number of civilians who arrived from the rebel-held areas in Puthumathalan, 390 kilometres north-east of Colombo were not known but people were continuing to arrive in military-controlled areas.

On Monday, a record 39,081 civilians fled the rebel-held area using land and sea routes, he said.

The military facilitated their escape by breaking through earthworks put up by the separatist rebels to prevent security forces from entering.

The civilians continued to come in from what the government said is the last remaining rebel-held territory in Sri Lanka as a government deadline for rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his cadres to surrender ends at noon (0630 GMT).

Nanayakkara said irrespective of the deadline, troops were continuing operations to rescue civilians and clear the area of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as soon as possible.

He said that according to available intelligence reports, Prabhakaran and his intelligence chief, Pottu Amman, were still in the area.

Rebels are now confined to less than 12 square kilometres on the coast of the Mullaitivu district, which includes the Putumathalan area, a government-demarcated safe zone, officials said.

Before Monday's mass exodus, about 68,000 civilians had fled the rebel-held areas since January and were placed in welfare centres before resettlement.

The government has described the operation to get the civilians out of the rebel-held area as one of the biggest "hostage rescue operations" in the world because it accuses the rebels of preventing the civilians from fleeing.

It said three women suicide bombers on Monday blew themselves up in the Puthumathalan area, killing 17 civilians and injuring 200, while people trying to escape claimed they were fired upon by the rebels to prevent them from leaving.

The LTTE, however, has accused the government of firing on civilians in the safe zone and forcing them into government territory.

Independent verification of these claims were not possible because the government has blocked journalists from the war zone.

The military said it is in the last phase of a drive to crush the LTTE, which has been fighting for more than 25 years for a separate state for the Tamil ethnic minority in the northern and eastern parts of majority-Sinhalese Sri Lanka.

Government troops launched the operations to recapture rebel-held areas in August 2006, first recapturing all rebel territory in the east last year before concentrating their operations in the north. (dpa)