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Wednesday, November 17, 1999 Published at 12:49 GMT

World: South Asia

Civilians return to frontline town

Many of the refugees stayed in makeshift camps

Civilians have begun returning to the strategic garrison town of Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka, after Tamil Tiger separatists called off a planned attack.

Conflict in Sri Lanka
  • An unwinnable war?
  • Timeline of conflict
  • Leading the Tigers
  • The ethnic divide
  • In a broadcast over the clandestine Voice of Tigers radio station, the Tigers urged people to return after having asked them to leave last week.

    The Tigers said they were responding to requests by international aid agencies to halt their advance because of the difficult conditions faced by civilians.

    Thousands of Tamil residents fled Vavuniya, some 260 km north of the capital Colombo, after the Tamil Tigers announced last week they were closing in on the town.

    Sri Lankan defence forces rushed in additional troops reinforcements, as gunfire was heard at the edge of the town.

    Vavuniya's most senior government administrator, Kandiah Ganesh, said 12,000 families were displaced in the region, while another 20,000 had fled the town.


    The BBC's Jannat Jalil in Colombo: "Heavy rain has slowed down the return"
    Many of the town's 100,000 residents are now returning, after having spent most of the week in makeshift open camps.

    Streets in Vavuniya are filling up, after being deserted over the past week. Train services have resumed and some buses are running.

    The assault on Vavuniya came after the Tamil Tiger rebels launched their latest offensive, codenamed "Unceasing Wave 3", on 2 November.

    Within the past two weeks, they have overrun several government-held towns in the north and northeast, with heavy losses for the Sri Lankan military.

    Click here to see a map of the warzone

    Thousands of troops were mobilised and sent to the frontline to check the Tiger advance.

    [ image:  ]
    The defence ministry has now launched an investigation into what is being describe as the military's worst ever defeat.

    The Tigers have now regained a large proportion of the land taken by the army during its 19-month offensive - Operation Jayasikuru, or Victory Assured - which was abandoned last December.

    The military setbacks are seen as a personal embarrassment for President Chandrika Kumaratunga, ahead of next month's presidential elections.

    Both Ms Kumaratunga and her main rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe of the opposition UNP, say they will hold talks with the Tigers if they win election.

    The Tigers are fighting for a separate homeland for minority Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

    [ image:  ]

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