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Page last updated at 11:59 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

India plea for S Lanka civilians

Sri Lankan soldiers in Mulaitivu
Access to the combat zone is tightly controlled

India has sought assurances that civilians trapped by the fighting in northern Sri Lanka will be protected.

India Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee urged President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a meeting to expand "safe zones" for those displaced.

Sri Lanka has pledged it will not launch attacks in the safe zones in its offensive against the Tamil Tigers.

Humanitarian groups have said a major crisis is looming for 250,000 civilians with reports of hundreds killed.

'No sympathy'

The BBC's Sanjoy Majumder in Delhi says India has a sizeable Tamil population and the Congress party-led government is under pressure to take a stronger line against Colombo's military offensive.

Speaking to the media in Delhi on Wednesday, Mr Mukherjee said that India would send relief materials to the north.

He said he had asked for the UN and Red Cross to be given access to assess the situation on the ground.

Mr Mukherjee said that while India had no sympathy for the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan government's military victories offered it a political opportunity to bring peace to the Tamil-dominated northern areas.

Mr Mukherjee met President Rajapaksa during his visit to Colombo on Tuesday.

INSURGENCY TIMELINE
1976: Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam form in the north-east
1987: India deploys peace-keepers to Tamil areas but they leave in 1990
2002: Government and rebels agree ceasefire
2006: Heavy fighting resumes
2009: Army takes main rebel bases of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu

The Indian embassy said the Sri Lankan government had insisted that safe zones for Tamil civilians would be respected.

Sri Lanka's minority Tamil community in the north-east has close cultural, religious and business ties with more than 50 million Tamils in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

There have been reports in the Indian media that a regional Tamil party, which heads the government of Tamil Nadu, has threatened to pull out of the Congress-led federal coalition if the security of Tamils in Sri Lanka is not ensured.

Mr Mukherjee said the Indian government would "work together with the government of Sri Lanka to enable all Sri Lankans, and particularly the Tamil community who have borne the brunt of the effects of the conflict, to lead normal lives as soon as possible".

President Rajapaksa said he had invited the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, and state opposition leader Jayalalitha to come to Sri Lanka to "see for themselves the situation on the ground and to persuade the [Tamil Tigers] to lay down arms and join the democratic mainstream."

'Meaningless'

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned the battle is causing a humanitarian crisis. It says hundreds of civilians have been killed and a quarter of a million people are trapped by the fighting.

The ICRC based its figure of dead on body counts by its staff in local hospitals.

It has called on the government troops and rebels to allow immediate and free access to the combat zone for humanitarian workers.

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Chris Morris reports from Mullaitivu, a town taken by the Sri Lankan army

Access for aid workers was so limited, it said, that the ICRC's own presence in the region was virtually meaningless.

The ICRC wanted to evacuate scores of critically wounded people on Tuesday but said it did not receive security clearance. It said on Wednesday it had again asked for permission.

The UN secretary general and the European Union have also expressed deep concern for civilians caught in the fighting. The British government repeated its call for a ceasefire.

The military says it is involved in a final push against retreating rebels.

Moving north from the captured rebel town of Mullaitivu, it is trying to secure the north-east coastline to encircle the rebels and says it hopes to control the entire north within weeks.

The Tamil Tiger rebels could not be reached immediately for comment, but vowed on Monday to fight on.

Access to the combat zone is tightly controlled, making it difficult to verify the actual situation.

The military did take a group of journalists, including the BBC's Chris Morris, to the region on Tuesday.

Our correspondent says that apart from soldiers on every corner in Mullaitivu, it is a ghost town. Most of the buildings, houses and shops are damaged or destroyed.

He says its capture is a big victory for the army but that the Tigers also appear on the surface undaunted, with the sound of artillery fire not that far away echoing down the empty streets.

MAP OF THE REGION
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