* At least 62,000 flee, military says
* Tigers vow no surrender
* Tiger leader in war zone - Tigers
* Red Cross warns of catastrophe
(Updates number fleeing)
By C. Bryson Hull and Ranga Sirilal
COLOMBO, April 21 Sri Lankan soldiers battled
into the last redoubt of the Tamil Tigers on Tuesday, and an
exodus of people trapped by the rebels in the coastal strip hit
more than 62,000, the military said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned
the situation was "nothing short of catastrophic" and urged both
sides to prevent further mass casualties among civilians, saying
hundreds had been killed in the past 48 hours.
The neutral agency did not assign blame to either side.
The operation gathered speed after the military's noon (0630
GMT) deadline for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to
surrender passed without any word from the separatists, in what
appears to be the final act in Asia's longest-running war.
The LTTE hours later vowed no surrender, despite being
massively outgunned by a military built up to wipe them out and
finish a conflict that has percolated since the early 1970s but
erupted into full-blown civil war in 1983.
"LTTE will never surrender and we will fight and we have the
confidence that we will win with the help of the Tamil people,"
Seevaratnam Puleedevan, secretary-general of the LTTE peace
secretariat, told Reuters by telephone.
Sri Lanka's military, in what it dubbed the world's largest
hostage rescue operation, moved in to keep the stream of people
moving and give troops a clear shot at the LTTE and its elusive
leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran.
"So far 62,600 people have come out and still they are
coming," military spokesman Udaya Nanayakkara said. Earlier, he
said soldiers had reached the beach, which meant they had
divided the Tigers' last remaining area into two.
He denied civilians were being harmed.
The Tigers' Puleedevan said Prabhakaran, the 54-year-old
guerrilla who since the 1970s has single-mindedly led a fight
for a separate nation for Tamils, was directing the fight in
what the army set up as a no-fire zone, but is now a last
A BLOODY END?
After the conventional end of the war, Sri Lanka will face
the challenges of healing divisions between the Tamil minority
and Sinhalese majority, and boosting a $40 billion economy
suffering on many fronts including a weakening rupee LKR=.
But on Tuesday for the second day running, the Colombo Stock
Exchange .CSE gained on positive investor sentiment over the
war effort and was at a more than two-month high.
Sri Lanka is seeking a $1.9 billion International Monetary
Fund loan to ease a balance of payments crisis and boost
flagging foreign exchange reserves, which Central Bank Governor
Ajith Nivard Cabraal said should be finished soon.
The United Nations and Western governments have urged the
military to renew a brief truce to negotiate the civilians'
exit, a plea the government has rejected on the grounds the
Tigers have dismissed all entreaties to let the people out.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa again turned down
Britain's attempt to send a special envoy and ruled out any
pause in military action during a phone call with Prime Minister
Gordon Brown on Monday, the president's office said.
"President Rajapaksa observed that this movement of
civilians had evoked a completely new situation and he had
instructed that additional consignments of food, medicine and
other essentials be dispatched," a statement on Tuesday said.
Puleedevan, the LTTE peace secretariat head, again urged a
permanent ceasefire and accused the government of killing 1,000
people and wounding 2,000 on Monday via shelling.
The government has denied that and accuses the Tigers of
creating a humanitarian crisis to build international pressure
for a ceasefire to try and rearm, as they have done in the past.
The Red Cross said it feared the operation could lead to a
drastic increase in the number of casualties.
"The situation is nothing short of catastrophic. Ongoing
fighting has killed or wounded hundreds of civilians who have
only minimal access to medical care," ICRC operations director
Pierre Kraehenbuehl said in a statement.
At least 50,000 people remain inside the one-time no-fire
zone, ICRC spokesman Simon Schorno said in Geneva. The military
said the number is less than that but it has no updated figure.
Before the exodus, it had said around 60,000 were there.
The stream of people leaving started on Monday after troops
breached an earthen rampart blocking the main route out of the
17 square km (6.5 sq mile) zone.
The final operation to crush the Tigers set off protests by
expatriate Tamils in London and Paris, the latest in weeks of
demonstrations against the offensive in cities across the world.
In Paris, around 180 people were arrested and four injured
when a demonstration turned violent as protesters blocked an
intersection and threw objects at buses and police, police said.
The United Nations has long said the LTTE was forcibly
preventing people from leaving and making others fight, which
the LTTE denies.
Sri Lanka provided video taken from unmanned aerial drones
on Monday showing thousands of people fleeing the area, and what
it said were LTTE fighters firing at others trying to get out.
It was impossible to independently verify the competing
accounts since the battle zone is off-limits to most outsiders.
(Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez, the Paris bureau, and
Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by
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