The Tamil Tigers have accused Sri Lankan government forces of killing more than 1,000 civilians and wounding another 2,300 during heavy fighting the previous day.
The island\’s defence ministry, however, rejected the allegation and said there had been no military attacks against Tamil civilians in the remaining patch of land still in the hands of the Tigers in the island\’s northeast.
“Over 1,000 civilians were killed and nearly 2,300 civilians were injured,” the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said in a statement. “And today, a bloodbath is prevailing.”
Sri Lanka rebels ignore deadline to surrender
Earlier, the defence ministry said the Sri Lankan army seized more ground from the Tamil Tigers as the rebels ignored a deadline to surrender.
The government says its troops were poised to defeat the LTTE, a hardened guerrilla group that has been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland on the ethnic Sinhalese-majority island since the 1970s.
The defence ministry said nearly 50,000 men, women and children managed to escape on Monday after troops punctured rebel defences at Puttumatalan, inside the rebel-held area in the island\’s northeast.
It also said 17 civilians who tried to escape from rebel-held territory on Monday had been killed by the guerrillas while another 373 had been wounded. The pro-rebel Tamilnet website reported the area was littered with the bodies of hundreds of civilians it said were killed in government shelling.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was concerned that the final offensive against the LTTE could lead to a “dramatic increase” in civilian casualties, a concern echoed by the UN.
“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\’s Director of Operations Pierre Kraehenbuehl said in Geneva.
In Washington, a US official warned on Monday that time was running out for a deal that he hoped would bring lasting peace to Sri Lanka.
Michael Owen, the acting deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said Sri Lanka should offer a package in which the Tigers hand in their arms, possibly to a third party, in exchange for amnesty for low-level cadres.
During the surrender, both sides would hold fire and let civilians leave, he said.
“We are running out of time,” Owen told the Brookings Institution think-tank.
“Really, there is literally only a couple of days to try to get this finalised.” Sri Lanka\’s government has resisted calls for any international intervention and for a prolonged pause in the military campaign to minimise the humanitarian suffering.
The government estimates show another 30,000 civilians could still be held by the Tigers but the United Nations says the number could be twice as high and warned Tuesday that an all-out assault risked a bloodbath.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the escape of the civilians but was “deeply concerned” about those still trapped, his office said. Journalists are barred from working in the north, making it impossible to verify the rival claims independently.
“If fighting continues and if the LTTE refuses to allow people to leave the conflict zone, then we face the intolerable inevitability of seeing many more children killed,” said UNICEF\’s South Asia regional director, Daniel Toole.
The Tigers have not formally responded to the surrender call but renewed their call for an unconditional ceasefire — something the government has already rejected.
The crisis has sparked protests in Europe and expressions of concern by UN and human rights groups.
In Paris, French police arrested 210 people Monday when a rally by Tamils turned violent as demonstrators threw bottles at security forces and smashed windscreens.
In London, thousands of Tamils blocked some of the city\’s busiest streets, demonstrating outside parliament and calling for an immediate ceasefire.