COLOMBO, Feb 5 – Sri Lanka’s president said Wednesday the Tamil Tiger rebels would be defeated within days, but more than 50 civilians were reported killed as fighting escalated in Asia’s longest-running civil war.,
In a national day address, President Mahinda Rajapakse said he was confident the Tigers would shortly be finished off, even as the United States and Britain called for a ceasefire to get trapped civilians to safety.
With the rebels’ campaign for a separate Tamil homeland ravaged, a UN spokesman said heavy shelling late Tuesday had killed at least 52 civilians and forced the evacuation of the only hospital in the northern battle zone.
Rajapakse said the "shadows of terrorism have almost been wiped out," with the last remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — who launched their militant struggle in 1972 — cornered in the jungle.
"I am confident that the Tigers will be completely defeated in a few days," he said.
However, the defence ministry said the Tigers had launched several counterattacks in their former stronghold of Mullaittivu, which was captured by troops last month. The military used air strikes to beat back the rebels.
"The aim of the terrorists was to regain the lost ground in Mullaittivu, to resurrect morale of their cadres," the ministry said in a statement. It said the air force carried out 13 bombing missions since Tuesday evening.
The attacks were in the same area where some of the estimated 120,000 civilians have been trapped by the fighting, according to officials. The military did not say if troops suffered casualties in the counter strikes.
The military drive over the past year has dismantled the Tigers’ mini-state in northern Sri Lanka, where the rebels have lost 98 percent of the territory once under their control.
The UN spokesman in Colombo, Gordon Weiss, told AFP that the at least 52 civilians were killed in one shelling attack in Mullaittivu district.
"We don’t know who is responsible or how many shells hit, but we have this report from our staff," he said adding the region’s only hospital was evacuated on Wednesday after 16 hours of shelling, including a cluster bomb attack.
Sri Lanka’s military denied it carried out the shelling and says that it does not possess cluster bombs.
Foreign governments said the bloodshed must end and thousands of Tamils and their supporters held protests in Paris, Geneva and Berlin.
Pope Benedict XVI also added to the calls to restrict what he called "the growing number of innocent victims".
"I make an urgent appeal to the combatants that they respect humanitarian law and the freedom of movement of people," the pope said during his weekly general audience.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her British counterpart David Miliband called for a "temporary no-fire period" to allow civilians to get out of the combat zone.
The joint US-British statement came after the quartet of Sri Lanka’s international backers — the United States, European Union, Japan and Norway — called on the rebels to negotiate terms of surrender.
"There remains probably only a short period of time before the LTTE loses control of all areas in the north," they said in a statement that was the first international acknowledgement that the Tigers are facing defeat.
There was no immediate reaction from the Tigers.
Human Rights Watch said Sri Lankan authorities had shown a "callous indifference" towards non-combatants trapped in fighting by refusing to guarantee their safety.
But Rajapakse, a member of the majority Sinhalese community, pledged to protect ethnic Tamil civilians.
"There is no religious or ethnic discrimination in our country," he said in his address. "It is my responsibility and duty to protect all the people."
Sri Lanka’s government — which pulled out of a Norwegian-brokered truce a year ago — has so far rejected any proposed new ceasefire, vowing instead to crush the Tigers.