COLOMBO (Reuters) - More than 2,200 people have fled Sri Lanka’s war zone in the last two days as the military on Friday vowed a rapid finish to the 25-year-old war while protecting thousands of trapped civilians.
Fighting is concentrated around a shrinking circle of jungle in the Indian Ocean island’s northeast, where the military said it has all but surrounded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists.
Trapped inside the 175 sq km (67 sq mile) battlefield are tens of thousands of civilians, whom aid agencies, the government and a growing list of nations have said are being held in the war zone by the Tigers, under grave threat of harm.
But they have started to come out in the past three weeks.
“Today, 600 people have come up until now,” military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. On Thursday, 1,637 escaped the fighting, he said.
Aid agencies say there are 250,000 people trapped in the battle zone, but the government says the number is half of that. The military says 6,320 people have come to government-controlled areas this year, Nanayakkara later told a press briefing.
Late on Thursday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the military operation would proceed while ensuring civilians are kept safe, the president’s office said in a statement.
The Tigers, once widely regarded as one of the world’s most ruthlessly effective guerrilla organizations, are now nearing defeat, analysts say. Rajapaksa this week said the ground war could be over in days.
Asked how long it would take to finish the war, Nanayakkara said: “We are going to do it as fast as possible. Let the civilians come out and then we will show how fast we’ll do it.”
Underscoring the high emotions in play as the war nears a decisive point, several dozen protesters shattered windows at the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the capital Colombo, the ICRC said.
“They were shouting and throwing stones, and hit some of the windows and broke them,” spokeswoman Sarasi Wijeratne said. Police came to disperse the group, which was around 200 people.
Hardline pro-government politicians have long accused international aid agencies of having sympathies with the LTTE, and those accusations have heated up as reports of civilian casualties have started to come out of the war zone.
Last week, the ICRC said hundreds of civilians had been killed in shelling. The government rejected that and said the Tigers again were trying to create a civilian crisis to provoke pressure for a truce, as it has done in the past.
Sri Lanka has said it will allow civilians safe passage, but has flatly refused calls for a ceasefire for negotiations.
The United States, Britain, the European Union and others have urged the Tigers to surrender, and for both sides to stop firing temporarily to allow civilians out and aid in.
The LTTE, which is on U.S., EU and Indian terrorist lists, could not be reached for comment.
The pro-rebel website TamilNet.com said on Friday the military had shelled a no-fire zone the army demarcated late last month and killed 16 people. The military accuses the LTTE of placing its artillery inside no-fire zones.
It is nearly impossible to verify either side’s accounts, since independent journalists are given access to the war zone only on carefully guided tours.
The United Nations said on Wednesday 52 people had been killed from shelling but it did not say who was responsible.
Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Sugita Katyal