COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s government on Friday again pledged safe passage to thousands of people trapped in fighting between the army and Tamil Tiger rebels, but said there would be no ceasefire with the separatist guerrillas.
But the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said that only an internationally-brokered ceasefire would resolve the conflict.
Sri Lanka’s army has surrounded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a 300 sq km slice of jungle in the Indian Ocean island’s northeast, aiming to end a war that started in 1983 and is one of Asia’s longest-running conflicts.
Aid agencies say 250,000 people are trapped inside the battle zone, and concern has grown for their safety.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said hundreds have been killed or wounded in fighting since last week.
“There is no ceasefire. We have given notice to the LTTE that Sri Lankan citizens whom they are forcibly keeping in the war zone must be let go,” Disaster and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told a press conference.
On Thursday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a statement promised safe passage to all civilians, and urged the LTTE to let them go within 48 hours.
The military had already said it would not cease combat operations or declare a ceasefire, but would stop shooting to allow civilians to get out as it did for a United Nations-ICRC convoy on Thursday that carried out 226 seriously wounded people.
The Tigers’ political head B. Nadesan called Rajapaksa’s 48-hour deadline an “ultimatum to civilians to move against their will” according to the pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com.
“Only a permanent ceasefire mooted by the international community and negotiations followed by it would resolve the conflict as envisaged by the Tamil people and the LTTE, Mr. Nadesan said,” TamilNet reported on Friday.
The government and human rights watchdogs say the LTTE has blocked civilians from leaving, instead forcing them to stay as human shields, fighters or labourers building defences.
The LTTE denies that, and says people are staying of their own free will because they fear abuse by the military. The military denies abusing anyone and says that more than 2,000 people have fled to safety behind army lines this month.
Samarasinghe also said the government’s estimate of the number of people in the war zone was lower, and called the aid agencies’ estimate of 250,000 “overblown”.
“We think the figure is not more than 120,000. I’m giving the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
At the same press conference, another senior government official challenged the ICRC figures of those killed.
“The ICRC statement of hundreds killed has to be rectified and clarified,” said Rajiva Wijesinghe, secretary of the Ministry of Human Rights.
Both sides have traded blame for the casualties.
The military says the Tigers are firing artillery from populated areas inside an army-declared no-fire zone with the hope of creating a crisis to build pressure for a truce, as they have done in the past when losing on the battlefield.
The Tigers deny that and have continually accused the military of firing into the no-fire zone. The military denies that, and says it has a policy of zero civilian casualties.
It is nearly impossible to verify accounts from the war zone, since journalists are usually barred from it except for when they are allowed in on carefully guided tours.