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Page last updated at 08:48 GMT, Wednesday, 29 April 2009 09:48 UK

Sri Lanka urged to halt offensive

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband: 'There is a humanitarian crisis'

British and French foreign ministers in Sri Lanka have urged the government to halt its military offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels in the north.

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the call was not aimed at saving the Tamil rebel leader but the lives of thousands of civilians trapped.

Correspondents say the government is unlikely to agree to a truce.

It has previously rejected similar calls and its relations with European countries have been tense.

The Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, had been due to accompany his European colleagues on the visit, but was refused entry by the Sri Lankan government.

The European Union has strongly criticised the refusal.

'Winning the peace'

"No-one in the international community has been calling for a ceasefire or to stop firing to save [Tiger leader Vellupillai] Prabhakaran. The calls have come because of the overwhelming concern with the wellbeing of the civilians," Mr Miliband said.

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The BBC visited a camp in Vavuniya accompanied by goverment forces

"Now is the time for the fighting to stop. Sri Lanka's military advances have been spectacular, but winning the peace is as vital as winning the war."

His sentiments were echoed by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who said that civilians in the north were "hostages of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)".

Mr Kouchner said that he and Mr Miliband had "insisted and insisted" on a ceasefire, but so far their request had not been met with a positive response from the government.

The two ministers are on a one-day trip to Sri Lanka and have met top officials - including President Rajapaksa - in addition to visiting a camp for 60,000 displaced people in the north.

The BBC's Charles Haviland accompanied the ministers who talked to as many refugees as they could.

Our correspondent says that Mr Miliband met one family who had been displaced 10 times and another man who said that the Tamil Tigers had tried to stop them leaving the conflict zone by shooting at them.

Two women also told the British foreign minister that the authorities running the camp had split their husband and son from them in a screening process but given them no information on where they were.

Others complained that conditions in the camp were very basic and sanitation poor.

The British and French ministers were visiting at the foreign ministry's invitation.

'Artillery and mortars'

The Sri Lankan military has restricted Tamil Tiger rebels to a 12 sq km (5 sq miles) area of land in the north of the islands and believes it is close to defeating them.

Posters in Colombo protest at Western attempts  to mediate in the war
The government is cautious over foreign efforts to mediate in the war

Tens of thousands of civilians have been trapped in the area, and the EU and the UN have urged Sri Lanka to observe a pause in its campaign to let them out.

The government says a halt would serve no purpose.

Diplomatic efforts to bring more help for the civilians in the war zone have so far made little progress.

Thousands of Tamil people who have fled recent fighting now live in camps known as "welfare villages" in the north under quite stringent government control.

A joint visit like this is unusual, our correspondent says.

Rebel sympathisers on Wednesday again accused the air force of bombing civilians in the small strip of land still controlled by the Tigers.

They said that heavy shelling damaged the only make-shift hospital within the government's "no fire zone".

But the military maintains that no heavy weapons have been used and that recent advances have been carried out using only small weapons with no civilian casualties.

Journalists are not allowed near the conflict zone, the conflicting accounts cannot be verified.

The Tamil Tigers have fought for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority since 1983.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in the war, but that figure could now be far higher.

Sri Lanka map



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