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By C. Bryson Hull
COLOMBO, Jan 14 (Reuters) — Nearly 800 civilians have fled Sri Lanka’s shrinking war zone in the last day as the army bears down on the last strongholds of separatist Tamil Tigers, the military said on Wednesday.
Troops are marching to the port of Mullaittivu across a small wedge of northeastern Sri Lanka still held by the Tigers, where aid groups say about 230,000 people are trapped in an area of no more than 330 square km (127 square miles).
“In the last 24 hours, 796 people have come out of the war zone,” military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. They have been provided with basic facilities and food, and will either be sent to the army-held Jaffna Peninsula or south to Vavuniya, site of the army’s rear headquarters for the war, he said. At least 1,000 civilians have fled this week. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had no immediate comment. In recent days, the pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com has accused the military of shelling civilians.
Nanayakkara said that was not true, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa has said he had ordered the army to avoid all civilian casualties — even if it means slowing down an offensive that many expect will end the 25-year war.
Soldiers also captured three rebels and found three decomposed guerrilla bodies, Nanayakkara said. Jets and helicopters late on Tuesday flew multiple sorties against LTTE fighters and knocked out two artillery guns, the air force said.
Rights groups accuse the Tigers of holding Tamils hostage in the war zone as human shields, forced conscripts and labourers.
The rebels deny that but have used civilians to stall earlier offensives, with allied Tamil politicians in India calling for a truce — as they are doing now, with little apparent success.
The military has barred most aid agencies from the war zone, but both the government and aid groups say they are preparing for a huge flood of refugees.
The military in the last two weeks seized two major strategic targets, the rebels’ self-proclaimed capital of Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass, which puts all of Jaffna under their control for the first time since 2000.
After those two major blows, the army has turned all units toward Mullaittivu, surging through a jungle where analysts estimate the Tigers have about 2,000 hardcore fighters left.
Many foresee a rapid end to a ground war that has raged off and on since 1983. The military and some analysts expect the Tigers will go back underground as the army closes in on Mullaittivu, and fight a hit-and-run guerrilla war.
The LTTE say they are fighting to address mistreatment of minority Tamils since the Sinhalese ethnic majority took over at independence from Britain in 1948. But many Sinhalese say Tamils enjoyed unfair advantages in colonial times and want them back. The Tigers are on U.S., E.U. and Indian terrorism lists after carrying out hundreds of assassinations and suicide bombings, including against Tamils who challenged them. (Editing by Valerie Lee)