Nearly 14,000 flee Sri Lanka's war zone

COLOMBO Sun Feb 8, 2009 7:47am EST

Sri Lankan army soldiers patrol by a roadside in Mullaittivu, January 27, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

Sri Lankan army soldiers patrol by a roadside in Mullaittivu, January 27, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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COLOMBO (Reuters) - More than 1,400 civilians poured out of Sri Lanka's war zone on Sunday, bringing the total in the last four days to nearly 14,000 as soldiers try to deal a death blow to the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels, the military said.

The rate of civilians trapped in fighting between the military and the cornered Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has picked up sharply this week, signaling the onset of faster military operations to wipe out the guerrillas.

More than 50,000 soldiers are converging on a sliver of jungle in the Indian Ocean island's northeast to crush the LTTE -- now estimated to number no more than 2,000 hardcore fighters -- and end a war that has flared off and on since 1983.

Combat raged at numerous locations in the 175 sq km (67 sq mile) battle zone, killing at least 11 guerrillas in a series of attacks and counter-attacks on Saturday, the military said.

"On Saturday, 5,600 had come out. And today there are 1,400 who have come at the moment. There will be more and more coming," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.

Thursday marked the first major exodus, and since then 13,700 people have come to army-held territory, most of them heading west and away from the fighting on the A-35 road, he said.

Since January 1, around 17,900 have fled the fighting. That is roughly between 7 and 15 percent of the total trapped in the area -- aid agencies say around 250,000 are there, while the government says the number is about half of that.

The government, aid agencies and rights groups have accused the rebels of forcibly keeping people in the war zone as human shields, conscripts and laborers. The Tigers deny that.

The pro-rebel website www.TamilNet.com accused the military of shelling the A-35 and groups of civilians, killing more than 120 people on Friday and Saturday, but cited no sources. The military denies targeting civilians.

Verifying battlefield reports is next to impossible since the war zone is sealed off to independent media.

SUICIDE ATTACKS

What is now one of Asia's longest-running wars has killed at least 70,000 people on the battlefield and in Tiger attacks outside the northern and eastern areas they had controlled and tried to build as a separate state for the Tamil ethnic minority.

The Tigers, which landed on U.S., E.U., Canadian and Indian terrorism lists through their widespread use of suicide bombs as a weapon of war, in the past week set off two suicide blasts to try and stop advancing troops, Nanayakkara said.

In Puthukudiyiruppu, which is the last big village the Tigers hold, 35 LTTE fighters on Saturday counter-attacked with an armor-plated vehicle and tried a suicide attack, he said.

"We believe all 35 were killed but we only recovered 11 bodies," he said.

A week ago, "Black Tiger" suicide fighters drove an explosives-laden truck with another vehicle toward advancing troops in Puthukudiyiruppu, setting it off and killing as many as 15 soldiers, he said.

"At the same time they launched an attack but they could not break through," Nanayakkara said.

The rebels have had no comment on that, but TamilNet.com had reported the first as killing more than 100 soldiers and resulted in the Tigers seizing an army ammunition dump.

The United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway have urged the LTTE to surrender, and both sides to allow a brief no-fire period to allow civilians to escape.

The government has pledged safe passage to civilians but has ruled out any ceasefire with the Tigers.

(Editing by Sugita Katyal)

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