COLOMBO, April 10, 2009 (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s army announced Friday it had launched an operation to bring to safety thousands of civilians trapped by fighting with Tamil Tiger rebels.
The defence ministry statement came as a New York-based human rights group said civilian casualties were “skyrocketing” in the island’s northeast where the rebels have been surrounded in a narrow strip of jungle.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the government of firing into an area designated as a “no-fire zone” packed with civilians and the remnants of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
“Sri Lanka’s so-called no-fire zone’ is now one of the most dangerous places in the world,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director.
“The Sri Lankan government should stop firing heavy artillery into the ‘no-fire zone,’ and “causing skyrocketing casualties,” said Adams.
International concern has been mounting for some 100,000 civilians that the United Nations says have been trapped by fighting.
Sri Lankan troops were setting up “rescue points” just outside the government-designated no-fire zone to allow civilians to make a dash for safety, the defence ministry said.
“Troops continuously keep the civilians informed about the safe routes… by removing terrorists blockades,” the ministry said, referring to the LTTE.
“The rescue mission is also supported by limited offensives by troops to make room for the hostages to come out.”
Government troops had yet to move into the so-called “safe zone” but “we are very close to the border of the no-fire zone,” said military spokesman Udaya Nanayakkara.
The government’s move followed charges by a pro-rebel website that shelling by troops killed 129 non-combatants and wounded 282 more in the supposed safe area on Wednesday — an allegation denied by the military.
The United Nations has said it feared thousands of civilians will be killed or wounded as the military keeps up its bid to finally crush the LTTE.
HRW’s Adams urged the United Nations to take urgent measures to end what it said was a violation of international humanitarian law by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.
The UN’s own rights body has already said both parties in the conflict could be guilty of war crimes.
“The (UN) Security Council has quibbled over protocol when it should be acting to bring an end to this ghastly loss of life,” Adams said.
The group accuses the Tigers of holding civilians hostage in a narrow 20-square-kilometre (eight-square-mile) coastal jungle patch.
The Tigers have also been accused of firing at those trying to escape.
Many have been killed and wounded as a result of Tiger attacks, according to rights groups and the UN.
The defence ministry said at least a dozen Tiger rebels were killed in fresh fighting on Thursday.
International mediators called Thursday for both camps to cease their “futile” fighting.
The LTTE should “permit freedom of movement for the civilians” trapped in the no-fire zone, representatives of the Tokyo Co-Chairs — the United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway — said in a statement.
Sri Lanka has resisted calls for a fresh truce, saying it would only help the Tigers at a time when they are near total defeat.