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Refugee stream from Sri Lanka's war zone picks up

COLOMBO, Jan 16 (Reuters) -- Increasing numbers of refugees are fleeing Sri Lanka’s war zone, which is rapidly shrinking as the military bears down on the Tamil Tiger rebels’ last remaining territory, the military and the Red Cross said on Friday.

And the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the only international aid agency still allowed a permanent presence in the war zone, said tens of thousands were concentrated in an area so small there was no place safe for them.

“Families heading westward in search of safety are encountering other families moving eastward with the same aim,” ICRC’s Sri Lanka delegation head Paul Castella said.

The 25-year-old war, one of Asia’s longest-running, is fast reaching what may be a decisive end, with military units surging across the jungle in the northeast of the Indian Ocean island to strike the Tigers’ last stronghold in the port of Mullaittivu.

There has been no negotiation of safe passage between the army and Tigers in a week, which has put at risk the lives of patients who cannot receive proper treatment in rebel-held areas and need to go to a hospital in army territory, the ICRC said.

It did not say what type of treatment the patients needed and if they had been hurt in the fighting.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has said he has ordered the military to avoid all civilian casualties.

The pro-Tiger website in the past week has said civilians are increasingly being killed and wounded. The Tigers in the past have publicised civilian casualties to create external pressure on the government to enter a ceasefire.

Rights groups have accused the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of forcing Tamil civilians to stay in the war zone to be conscripts or labourers. The LTTE denies that.

The military on Friday said that more than 1,000 civilians had fled to the military-controlled areas on Thursday, bringing the total this week to over 2,000. Aid groups say about 230,000 are trapped in the conflict area.

Also on Friday, the military said it had captured a sixth air strip used by the LTTE’s small air fleet, near Iranamadu, a day after it found a larger one with an abandoned hangar nearby.

Iranamadu is east of the Kilinochchi town, which the military seized on Jan. 2 and in doing so struck a major blow against the LTTE’s separatist plans -- it had declared Kilinochchi as its capital of the state it wants to create for Sri Lankan Tamils.

The Wall Street Journal in an editorial on Friday said Rajapaksa had chosen the right strategy to fight the LTTE.

“For all those who argue that there is no military solution for terrorism, we have two words: Sri Lanka,” the paper wrote. The Tigers are on U.S., E.U. and Indian terrorism lists after carrying out hundreds of assassinations and suicide bombings, including against Tamils who challenged them.

The LTTE say they are fighting to address mistreatment of minority Tamils since the Sinhalese ethnic majority took over at independence from Britain in 1948. But many Sinhalese say Tamils enjoyed unfair advantages in colonial times and want them back. (Editing by Valerie Lee)