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Friday, November 12, 1999 Published at 17:07 GMT

World: South Asia

Tamil rebels advance on key town

Refugees are heading for temporary camps away from Vavuniya

Tamil Tiger separatists in Sri Lanka say they are advancing towards the government-held garrison town of Vavuniya some 260 km north of the capital, Colombo.

The Tigers, who have made large gains in battles against Sri Lankan forces this month, say they are approaching the town of Omanthai, half-way between the frontline and Vavuniya.

Conflict in Sri Lanka
  • An unwinnable war?
  • Timeline of conflict
  • Leading the Tigers
  • The ethnic divide
  • The fighting has forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee Vavuniya in the past two days, with reports saying that Tiger artillery shells are landing just a few kilometres away.

    A clandestine Tiger radio broadcast has announced that the rebels are closing in on Omanthai, which is under heavy artillery attack.

    They say they have also destroyed a military camp in the Weli Oya region in the northeast. Local reports say that 12 soldiers have been wounded in the latest artillery exchanges.

    Click here to see a map of the warzone


    Three-quarters of the 100,000 population of Vavuniya are said to have fled the town, fearing an imminent attack by the Tigers.

    A BBC correspondent says the atmosphere in the town is tense, with shops and businesses shut. Heavily armed troops are patrolling the streets.

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    Military officials said the town was well fortified, but admitted that the Tigers were within striking distance.

    On Wednesday, the Tigers warned over the radio that Vavuniya could be attacked and asked civilians to leave.

    The announcement led to panic as residents scrambled to get out. Trains heading south were crowded with families.

    Aid agencies expressed serious concern about nearly 2,000 refugees and hospital patients who had not been allowed to leave because they lacked proper documents.

    Vavuniya is the latest town to come under threat sincer the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched their latest offensive, codenamed "Unceasing Wave 3", on 2 November.

    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.

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