COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels faced new calls to surrender Thursday as the army pressed a final offensive against the guerrillas, amid growing worries about civilians trapped by the fighting.
Convinced that an end to decades of fighting is finally in sight, President Mahinda Rajapakse ruled out any amnesty for rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his ethnic Tamil fighters now trapped in a sliver of northern jungle.
“They are fighting a losing battle,” government defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said Wednesday.
Sri Lanka has long kept journalists and outside observers away from the battle zone, but dramatic footage of tens of thousands of civilians fleeing rebel areas in recent days has underscored the dire humanitarian situation.
The rebels have been repeatedly accused of holding civilians for use as human shields, and the UN Security Council said Wednesday that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as they are formally known, must now give up.
“We demand that the LTTE immediately lay down arms,” said the current Council president, Mexico’s UN ambassador Claude Heller.
The Sri Lankan army has made steady advances in recent months, slowly beating back the guerrillas who at one time controlled more than one-third of the island, and the government insists the rebels are now all but finished.
On Wednesday two senior Tiger officials — including their spokesman and main contact with the outside world, Velayudam Dayanidi — surrendered to government forces.
But as the army has slowly pinned the guerrillas down in a narrow strip of coastal jungle, the international spotlight has focused on the fate of civilians caught up in a conflict that has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives.
State television has shown thousands of people waiting for food; desperate civilians trudging through waist-deep water to get to safety; and a young woman giving birth on a bus carrying displaced civilians away from the war zone.
“This is such a terrible humanitarian tragedy,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
“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.”
The Tigers, who have been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland since 1972, have acknowledged losing ground but have accused the government of killing 1,000 civilians in recent days.
The military for its part said fleeing non-combatants were fired on by the rebels, who allegedly kept villagers as human shields.
The rival claims are hard to verify as independent reporters are not allowed access to the area, but aid agencies have painted a grim picture.
“The situation is nothing short of catastrophic,” said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, operations director for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
One hospital in the northern Vavuniya area was “saturated” with patients coming from the conflict area, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) spokeswoman Olivia Blanchard told AFP.
“The buses are still coming and they’re actually unloading dead bodies at times as some wounded people died on the way,” said Karen Stewart, an MSF mental health officer.
President Rajapakse ordered a two-day ceasefire last week to mark the traditional New Year, but dismissed a rebel offer of a permanent truce as an attempt by the rebels to regroup.
His office said he even made a symbolic flying visit to the LTTE’s former political capital Kilinochchi, which the government retook in January after nearly two years of intense fighting.
It was the first visit to the area by a Sri Lankan head of state in nearly 30 years, and underscored the determination of his government to finally reunite the island and defeat the rebels once and for all.
But the government offensive has sparked protests by Tamils around the world. Up to 30,000 Tamil demonstrators have taken to the streets in Canada, and there have been other protests in Paris, London and elsewhere.