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Page last updated at 16:21 GMT, Monday, 2 February 2009

S Lanka tells civilians to leave

Sri Lankan civilians
Between 120,000 and 250,000 civilians are said to be in the rebel area

The Sri Lankan government has told civilians to leave an area where it is fighting Tamil Tiger rebels, saying it cannot guarantee their safety.

A statement said the battle in the north-east was at a "decisive stage".

It is unclear how the tens of thousands of people caught up in the fighting can escape. The rebels deny preventing people from leaving the area.

Earlier, the Red Cross said at least nine people were killed by shelling at a hospital in rebel-held territory.

"The government calls on all civilians to enter the demarcated 'safety zone' as soon as possible," the government statement said, AFP news agency reported.

"The government cannot be responsible for the safety and security of civilians still living among LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] terrorists," it said.

Sri Lanka's military says it has designated a safe zone for civilians in a 32 sq km buffer zone on the A-35 main road which links Paranthan and Mullaitivu.

The government's designated safe zone is inside a gradually-shrinking rebel enclave north of the town of Mullaitivu.

But aid workers say that, in recent days, shells have fallen into the zone and people have been killed there. Both sides deny being responsible for firing into the area.


This whole issue of shelling at Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital is based on false information

Lakshman Hulugalle
Sri Lankan government spokesman

The Sri Lankan military said there had been more heavy fighting on Monday, with two rebel leaders critically wounded. There is no independent confirmation of the claim - journalists are not able to reach the front lines.

The army offensive has pushed the rebels into a 300 sq km (110 sq mile) corner of jungle in the north-east of the island, which aid agencies say also holds 250,000 civilians.

The government says the number of civilians is closer to 120,000 and that the army has a policy of not firing at civilians.

It accuses the Tamil Tigers of not allowing civilians to leave, saying they are being used as human shields.

The rebels say the civilians prefer to stay where they are under rebel "protection".

The government statement came a day after nine people were killed when shells hit a hospital in the area, according to the Red Cross.

There has been no word from the rebels on the government statement or on the shelling of the hospital, in the town of Puthukkudiyiruppu, in Mullaitivu district.

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
1993: President Premadasa killed by Tiger bomb
2001: Attack on airport destroys half Sri Lankan Airlines fleet
2002: Government and rebels agree ceasefire
2005: Mahinda Rajapaksa becomes president
2006: Heavy fighting resumes
2009: Army takes main rebel bases of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu

The hospital was hit three times in 24 hours, aid officials said.

UN spokesman Gordon Weiss told the BBC the shells had hit a crowded paediatric unit.

It is not clear who fired them, with pro-rebel websites blaming the army for the attacks, and the military denying any role.

A Sri Lankan government spokesman, Lakshman Hulugalle, told the BBC's World Update programme: "Actually, this whole issue of shelling at Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital is based on false information.

"There was no attack in that area... They're just spreading this news for them. Other than that, we totally reject that there was shelling. There was no shelling at all."

There has been no comment so far from the Tamil Tigers.

Independent journalists are not allowed in the conflict zone so information from both sides cannot be verified.

Puthukkudiyiruppu is situated in an enclave held by the rebels, and is home to tens of thousands of civilians.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has promised safe passage for civilians trapped by fighting in the north-east.

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Amateur footage of wounded people in Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital recorded before the building was apparently shelled

International Red Cross spokeswoman Sophie Romanens told the BBC that the local civilian population was still desperate to reach the hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu for medical help.

"There is a constant influx of people wounded by the fighting who arrive at the hospital," she said.

"People arrive by ambulances, but they are also brought in by wagon, by pick-up truck, tractor, any vehicle, any means of transport that people can find to reach that hospital.

"And you know, people who are wounded are even ready to take the risk to have to cross an area where there is fighting going on to be able to get treatment in the hospital."

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FROM OTHER NEWS SITES
Washington Post Dozens Killed in Sri Lanka Fighting - 46 mins ago
Time Ishaan Tharoor, TIME: How Sri Lanka tamed its Tigers - 1 hr ago
Guardian Unlimited Cluster bombs kill civilians at Sri Lankan hospital - 2 hrs ago
Al Jazeera Sri Lanka's Tigers 'facing defeat' - 2 hrs ago
CNN Sri Lankan hospital closes after being shelled - 4 hrs ago



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