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Thursday, November 11, 1999 Published at 15:58 GMT

World: South Asia

Civilians flee Sri Lankan town

A soldier watches as civilians leave

Thousands of Sri Lankan civilians have been fleeing the government-held town of Vavuniya after Tamil Tiger rebels broadcast an announcement warning them to leave.

The BBC's Susannah Price: "The town centre is reported to be almost deserted"
Many residents fear the Tigers - who are only 20 km away - plan to attack the town, which contains a large army garrison.

Three-quarters of the 100,000 population of Vavuniya, some 260 km north of the capital, Colombo, is estimated to have left. Trains coming south are crowded with families.

"It is difficult to give exact figures, but the town appears to be empty," said Harsha Gunawardena, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). He said the relief agency was keeping its office in the town open.

[ image: Many have fled already]
Many have fled already
"People are moving westwards as well as eastwards to the suburbs and neighbouring villages," a local official said by telephone as he prepared to leave.

Meanwhile, aid agencies have expressed serious concern about nearly 2,000 refugees and hospital patients who have not been allowed to leave because they lack proper documents.

BBC correspondent Susannah Price in Colombo says Tiger radio named three locations in the region where civilians should gather, but it did not specify whether an attack on the town was planned.

Click here to see a map of the warzone

Conflict in Sri Lanka
  • An unwinnable war?
  • Timeline of conflict
  • Leading the Tigers
  • The ethnic divide
  • A Sri Lankan military official described the warning as "psychological warfare", but admitted Vavuniya could now be within striking distance of long-range artillery.

    Vavuniya has come under threat after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began their latest offensive, codenamed "Unceasing Wave 3", on 2 November.

    The army has increased its presence in the area with tanks and soldiers patrolling the streets.

    [ image:  ]
    According to witnesses no shells have fallen in the town, but the sound of fighting can be heard close by.

    Fighting continued in the north and northeast on Thursday as government forces attempted to regroup after recent losses to the Tigers, in which there have been scores of casualties on both sides.

    In the northeastern Welioya region, army troops and rebels continued to exchange artillery and mortar fire that has forced thousands of villagers to flee their homes, officials said.

    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 LTTE is fighting for a separate homeland for minority Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

    [ image:  ]

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