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(Adds new U.N. attempt to move wounded)
By C. Bryson Hull
COLOMBO, Jan 28 (Reuters) — The Tamil Tigers blocked a convoy carrying hundreds of wounded people from leaving the site of heavy fighting in Sri Lanka’s north, the United Nations said on Wednesday.
Sri Lankan troops have cornered the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in an area of 300 square km (115 sq miles), where the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) say 250,000 civilians are trapped in the fighting.
That has many forecasting a swift end to a 25-year separatist conflict that is one of Asia’s longest-running wars. ———————————————————————————————— — [For a related SCENARIOS analysis, click on [ID:nCOL384131] and for a Q+A on trapped civilians, click on [ID:nCOL332297] ———————————————————————————————— -
India’s foreign minister, after a brief trip to meet Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, pledged New Delhi’s aid in post-war reconstruction and made no mention of a truce demanded by Indian Tamil politicians in the ruling coalition.
The United Nations, the ICRC, the United States, the European Union and others have demanded that the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE keep civilians safe. The combatants are increasingly trading blame over deaths and injuries the ICRC on Tuesday said number in the hundreds. [ID:nLR669251]
The United Nations said it would try again to move hundreds of seriously wounded out of the war zone and into a government hospital, after its attempt on Tuesday was blocked when the Tigers denied travel permission and the military resumed firing.
“There was a brief window where there was no firing from the military, but then the LTTE said it was not safe to proceed,” United Nations spokesman Gordon Weiss had said earlier.
The convoy was due to leave on Thursday at noon (0630 GMT).
ICRC spokeswoman Sarasi Wijeratne said that the convoy had not been given full security assurances, but declined to say more. ICRC is the only aid group with a full-time presence in the war zone and is the neutral liaison between both sides.
Sri Lanka’s military on Wednesday accused the LTTE of blocking the convoy, and said casualties were lower than had been reported because some wounded were rebels.
“How can international organisations identify those injured as civilians? Anybody who throws away their weapons becomes a civilian,” defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters. He said the military had no official casualty figures yet.
The pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com on Monday accused the military of killing as many as 300 people and wounding hundreds more with shelling in a no-fire zone the army set up a week ago.
The military has denied the accusation, and says the Tigers moved artillery there and had fired inside the safety zone.
Human rights watchdogs and the government accuse the LTTE — designated a terrorist group by India, the United States and the European Union — of keeping civilians in its territory to use them as fighters, battlefield labourers or human shields.
The Tigers could not be reached for comment because communications in the war zone are severed, but have denied similar allegations in the past.
Early on Wednesday, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee left Sri Lanka after meeting with Rajapaksa.
“The Sri Lankan government has reassured that they would respect the safe zones and minimise the effects of conflict on Tamil civilians,” Mukherjee said in a statement.
He also said the military victories offered a chance to resume normalcy in northern Sri Lanka after 25 years of war. “We will be working together on a reconstruction plan for these areas which will involve infrastructure and other support.”
There was also progress on state-run Indian power generating company (NTPC.BO)’s plans to build a 500 megawatt power plant in the eastern port of Trincomalee, he said, without giving details.
India in the late 1980s used the fate of Tamil civilians to launch a disastrous peacekeeping mission. Indian Tamil leaders in the ruling coalition, facing an election by May, have repeatedly pressed New Dehli to broker a truce as the LTTE has lost ground. (Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)