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Page last updated at 13:52 GMT, Friday, 30 January 2009

S Lanka leader vows safe passage

Sri Lanka soldier in Mullaittivu district
The UN says it is seriously concerned for civilians in the region

Sri Lanka's president has promised safe passage for 250,000 civilians trapped by fighting in the north-east.

Mahinda Rajapaksa urged the Tamil Tiger rebels to ensure the free movement of civilians from the region, but the government has ruled out a ceasefire.

The rebels have not commented but in the past have insisted the people want to stay to be protected by them.

The UN says it is seriously concerned about civilians. Health officials and rights groups say hundreds have died.

Sri Lanka's defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapakse, says the numbers are exaggerated and aid agencies are panicking.

Meanwhile, the UK has announced it is doubling its emergency humanitarian aid to try to protect civilians.

'Rights breaches'

President Rajapaksa said that the rebels were refusing to let the civilians leave.

"I urge the [Tamil Tigers], within the next 48 hours to allow free movement of civilians to ensure their safety and security. For all those civilians, I assure a safe passage to a secure environment," he said.

The BBC's Chris Morris in Colombo says there has been no response so far from the rebels and that communication with them is very difficult.

The European Union on Friday called for a halt to the conflict.

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

EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel said: "This is an escalating humanitarian catastrophe. We are extremely worried about the terrible situation facing people trapped in the fighting."

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband said he was again calling for an "immediate humanitarian ceasefire".

But the Sri Lankan government has ruled out a truce.
Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told reporters on Friday: "We will continue with our military operations and we will continue to liberate areas which have not been liberated so far."

Our correspondent says that displaced civilians who do manage to leave the war zone are held in government-managed camps to which there is no media access.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has said she is extremely concerned about the well-being of people caught up in the fighting.

She said the situation could be worse than generally realised because of the restrictions to access to the war zone.

Soldiers in Mullaitivu
The army is facing monsoon conditions in its push into the jungle

Ms Pillay said there appeared to be "very grave breaches of human rights by both sides in the conflict and it is imperative that we find out more about what exactly has been going on".

On Friday, the Reporters without Borders group also appealed to President Rajapaksa to allow local and foreign journalists to report freely.

The Red Cross says the humanitarian situation in the north-east "remains precarious for thousands".

"Stocks have been depleted and sustainable ways of producing food locally have become almost nonexistent," it said.

The UK has said it is doubling its emergency humanitarian aid with another 2.5m to support Red Cross operations and help maintain relief convoys.

Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander said: "Not enough aid is getting through to those who desperately need it."

Heavy fighting

On Thursday, aid agencies said they had evacuated hundreds of wounded civilians, including 50 critically ill children, to a hospital in the town of Vavuniya.

The pro-rebel TamilNet website quoted a rebel spokesman, S Puleedevan, as denying reports the rebels had initially prevented the Red Cross convoy from leaving.

Mr Puleedevan described the reports as "mischievous".

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

It has captured the key towns of Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and the strategically important Elephant Pass in recent weeks.

The BBC's Ethirajan Anbarasan is at Elephant Pass with the army.

He says he can hear artillery fire 15km (nine miles) to the south and has been told there is heavy fighting there.

Our correspondent says commanders are confident the fighting will be over in the coming days - though they do not specify how long exactly it will take. They are upbeat and say rebel resistance is crumbling.

He has been told another 10 rebels have been killed in the latest fighting, though this cannot be independently verified.

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