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More civilians flee Sri Lanka war

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Sri Lankan TV appears to show civilians crossing the Nanthikadal Lagoon

The number of Tamil civilians who have escaped from areas held by Tamil Tiger rebels in northern Sri Lanka has risen to 77,000, the army says.

A spokesman said soldiers had taken control of "10 to 15%" of the last remaining territory held by the rebels.

The Tamil Tigers were trying to move their leader Prabhakaran to a safe haven, the spokesman said.

He said 30 civilians had been killed in the last 48 hours. This included 17 killed in a rebel suicide attack.

The rebels said the army had killed about 1,000 civilians in the latest fighting. There is no confirmation.

The rebels also said that about 2,300 civilians have been injured since Monday, and accused the government of using Tamil people as human shields and forcing them to clear landmines.

Sri Lankan military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told the BBC that the army had "rescued" 77,000 people since Wednesday.

"Some people have been evacuated, while others have wanted to stay with government troops," he said.

Brig Nanayakkara said 30 civilians had been killed, of which 17 had been killed in a rebel suicide attack. Thirteen others, he said, had died of gunshot injuries and artillery fire from the rebels.

"We are not targeting the civilians. The rebels are causing civilian casualties," he said.

A deadline for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to surrender or face a final assault expired at 0630 GMT on Tuesday with no word from the Tigers.

However, hours later a rebel official vowed to continue the battle.

The head of the Sri Lankan army, Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, told the BBC that troops knew the "general area" of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and that "action will be taken to destroy him".

This is our problem and we will sort out our problem.
Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara

Rebel leader Prabhakaran was hiding near the coast, Lt Gen Fonseka said.

Troops believe he could try to escape the war zone by boat, a method used by other rebel leaders.

There is no media access to the area, so it is difficult to interpret the parallel propaganda war, says the BBC's Charles Haviland in Colombo.

The general said only 300-400 Tamil Tiger fighters remained, but there may be 700 "forcibly armed" people in rebel bunkers.

TAMIL TIGER DEFENCES BREACHED BY SRI LANKA ARMY
8010818
1. 12km-long defensive earthworks constructed by Tamil Tigers using mechanical diggers
2. Sri Lankan army uses explosives to destroy a 3km section
3. Gap allows thousands of refugees to flee Tiger-held territory

"We went in and people came towards us and we rescued them and [have] taken them to a better location."

He dismissed any suggestion that international assistance would help resolve the conflict.

Brig Nanayakkara said: "This is our problem and we will sort out our problem."

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa also rejected international offers, telling British Prime Minister Gordon Brown that there was no need to send a special envoy and a pause in fighting was not necessary.

"President Rajapaksa observed that this movement of civilians had evoked a completely new situation and he had instructed that additional consignments of food, medicine and other essentials be dispatched," a government statement said.

Gordon Weiss, the UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, said it was not known how many civilians remained there but that the UN had been working off a figure of some 150,000 to 200,000 people in recent months.

'Catastrophe'

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was "extremely worried" about civilians still trapped in the zone.

"The situation is nothing short of catastrophic. Ongoing fighting has killed or wounded hundreds of civilians who have only minimal access to medical care," said director of operations Pierre Kraehenbuehl.

The rebel TamilNet website said the territory they still controlled was littered with bodies of civilians.

Video released by Tamil supporters shows mutilated bodies, but it is not clear when the recording was made.

They said it was filmed on Monday, but this cannot be verified.

It follows footage released by the government showing civilians fleeing the war zone.

MAP OF THE REGION
Sri Lanka map



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