COLOMBO, Jan 27 – Sri Lanka’s warring parties came under more international pressure Tuesday to protect thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire as the United Nations reported more than 30 deaths during ongoing fighting.,
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed deep concern over the fate of civilians trapped between government troops and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the northeast of the island.
Ban "is deeply concerned about the safety and well-being of civilians caught in intensified fighting in the Wanni region of Sri Lanka between the LTTE and the government of Sri Lanka," said a statement issued by his press office.
The United Nations said Monday at least 30 civilians had been killed in the fighting, amid a government drive to root out the last pockets of Tamil Tiger resistance.
The European Union also joined in by asking Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama to ensure that civilians were spared as troops moved to crush the Tigers who lost their last urban stronghold of Mullaittivu on Sunday.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the Tamil Tigers, who are on the EU list of terrorist groups, must guarantee the free movement of the civilian population and release all child soldiers.
Sri Lanka’s military denied that it targeted civilians in a "safe zone," an area demarcated by the military to allow some 150,000 civilians behind Tiger lines to take shelter and avoid getting caught in the crossfire.
However, the defence ministry said the Tigers had moved their artillery into the safe zone and were firing at civilians in a bid to shift the blame on to government troops.
"Tiger terrorists, now in their death throes having lost almost all of their remaining strongholds and hideouts in Kilinochchi and Mullaittivu districts, are resorting to every possible inhuman and barbaric trick," the ministry said.
It said Tigers had fired the first volley of shots, aiming at villages inside the "safe zone" where civilians were taking refuge.
The UN spokesman in Colombo, Gordon Weiss, said at least 10 civilians were killed on Monday morning inside the "safe zone" while dozens more were killed or wounded over the weekend.
Weiss said he could not say who was responsible for the civilian casualties, but UN staff in the area had witnessed civilians getting hit by artillery shells.
"Roughly at least 20 people were killed over the weekend when shells landed on the A-35 road inside the safety zone. Our staff members were at the scene to witness it," he said. "We don’t know where the firing came from."
Local and international rights groups have also asked the Tigers to move away from the safe zone and allow civilians the freedom to travel to government-held areas.
The LTTE did not comment on the casualties, but pro-rebel Tamilnet.com website said more than 100 civilians were killed in artillery fire on Monday, a charge denied by the military.
Meanwhile, the fate of LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran — who has been leading a separatist war against Sri Lanka’s ethnic Sinhalese majority since 1972 — was unclear, with some suggesting he had already fled the island.
The Tigers are widely expected to return to fighting a guerrilla war from hidden jungle bases.
Military officials say 50,000 government troops are now fighting fewer than 2,000 Tiger fighters.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed since the conflict began but the government pulled out of an on-off ceasefire last year and launched a fresh campaign to crush the Tigers once and for all.