Article published on the 2009-04-23 Latest update 2009-04-23 14:31 TU
Civilians arrive at the village of Putumatalan in Puthukkudiyirippu, northern Sri Lanka 22 April 2009 after fleeing the combat zone.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon ordered Thursday the immediate despatch of a humanitarian team to northern Sri Lanka, where thousands of civilians are trapped by fighting between troops and rebel Tamil separatists. The Tamil Tiger guerrillas are could now confined them to a tiny area, and the army promises to make a final push once civilians are out of the combat zone.
The army said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) controlled just 10-12 square kilometres of territory on the north-east coast, and that thousands of civilians were also still trapped by the fighting.
Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, the island's military spokesperson, said the Tigers were using artillery and tanks.
"There are sporadic clashes but our priority is to get the civilians out. We can finish them off very quickly after the civilians get out of the way," he added.
The rebels have been accused of using civilians as human shields. However, the battle seems to have entered its final stages as more than 100,000 people have fled the area this week.
“The military is tremendously overwhelmed,” said correspondent Amal Jayasinghe in Colombo. “They didn’t expect these kinds of numbers.”
“We really have no idea of the exact number of people who are still trapped in the conflict zone,” he said.
Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapakse told the rebels to give up, but has warned that there will be no amnesty for rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran,
The UN Security Council echoed that call. “We demand that the LTTE immediately lay down arms, renounce terrorism, allow a UN-assisted evacuation of the remaining civilians in the conflict area, and join the political process," Claude Heller, the presiding president of the group, said.
In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the Sri Lankan government’s heavy-handed approach.
“This is such a terrible humanitarian tragedy. And we have been pressing the Sri Lankan government for a halt in the fighting so that we could secure a safe passage for as many of the trapped civilians as possible,” she said.
"I think that the Sri Lankan government knows that the entire world is very disappointed, that, in its efforts to end what it sees as 25 years of conflict, it is causing such untold suffering."
But she also criticised the Tigers, saying: "There seems to be very little openness on the part of the Tamil Tiger leadership to cease their efforts so that we could try to get in and help the people."
US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, laid the blame on both sides.
"The fact that both sides have been shooting at civilians as they leave these safe zones... (is a) gross violation of international humanitarian law," Rice said.
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