COLOMBO, Apr 22 – US and Red Cross officials pleaded for the lives of tens of thousands of civilians trapped in Sri Lankan jungle as government troops pressed a relentless offensive against Tiger rebels.
Pictures emerging from the conflict zone show children holding onto elders, mothers carrying infants and wounded men and women, many with bandaged limbs, walking through minefields and wading through water to escape.
Sri Lankan forces Tuesday seized more ground from the rebels holed up in a tiny strip of northeast jungle and said they were poised to launch the final assault at any moment.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who have been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland since 1972, acknowledged losing a coastal village they used as a key supply port.
But they ignored a deadline to surrender and accused government forces of killing 1,000 civilians in an offensive they described as a "bloodbath."
Both sides often accuse each other of targeting civilians — claims which are hard to verify as independent reporters are not allowed near the conflict zone.
Authorities in Sri Lanka said Wednesday that 60,000 men, women and children had managed to escape over the previous two days.
Live video from a Sri Lankan spy plane showed thousands of people grabbing whatever they could and making a dash for safety, despite firing by rebels.
"The situation is nothing short of catastrophic," said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, operations director for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"What we are seeing is intense fighting in a very small area, overcrowded with civilians who have fled there," he said.
He estimated there were still 50,000 people inside a no-fire zone declared by the government, while facilities for those who had reached relative safety were overstretched.
Washington, too, urged both Sri Lankan troops and Tiger rebels not to fire indiscriminately into the no-fire zone.
"There continues to be firing from both sides into the no-fire zone, and we have credible reports of increasing casualties as a result of the intensified military actions," State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters.
He backed calls by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for UN staff to enter the area to facilitate relief and evacuation operations.
Those who managed to escape brought with them dramatic tales of suffering and trauma.
"They (Tigers) were shooting, they were shooting. They tried to stop us," one unidentified woman told a Sri Lankan state-television journalist embedded with security forces. "We are happy to get away."
Another man said he was glad to be alive. "We have no problem here, we are happy," the Tamil man said in faulty Sinhalese.
"They (Tigers) shot us. They hit us. They didn’t let us come out earlier," said a teenage girl at a makeshift reception centre.
The Tigers appealed for help from the Red Cross, accusing the armed forces of trying to weaken the guerrillas’ resistance by using the civilians as human shields.
"The LTTE requests the ICRC provide medical supplies and evacuate by ship the 2,000 people injured and facing imminent danger," they called. "Immediate food is required as several are faced with starvation."
With the government apparently set to win a military victory, US officials said they feared for the safety of 65,000 or more civilians crowded into tents and makeshift shelters on a beach on the Bay of Bengal.
"The 26-year-old conflict is at a decisive point. We see the potential of major developments within the next 48 hours," said Michael Owen, the US acting deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia.
The apparent end game in Sri Lanka has triggered protests around the world, with up to 30,000 Tamil demonstrators clogging the Canadian capital Ottawa to press for mediation.
Similar rallies have been held in London, Paris and North America.