Page last updated at 08:37 GMT, Friday, 8 May 2009 09:37 UK

S Lanka army 'maintains advance'

Sri Lankan soldiers in the north-east
The Sri Lanka army is facing 'stiff resistance' from the rebels

Sri Lanka's army says it is continuing to make advances into Tamil Tiger territory, with the president saying the war is "rapidly" nearing an end.

Mahinda Rajapkasa said that Sri Lanka was on "the threshold of a new era of lasting peace".

Troops were advancing in the designated no-fire zone in the north-east amid stiff rebel resistance, the defence ministry website said.

The pro-rebel TamilNet has urged the US to find a "political balance".

The area still under rebel control is down to about 5 sq km (two square miles).

Sri Lankan troops were strengthening an earth bund they captured on Wednesday to prevent rebel attempts to recapture it, the defence ministry said.

It said radio intercepts suggested the rebels had suffered heavy losses.

The Tamil Tigers have made no comment and reports cannot be verified as independent journalists are not allowed into the war zone.

'Great risk'

Reports of the number of civilians still trapped in the zone range from 20,000 to 50,000.

On Thursday the Red Cross said the heavy fighting was putting "the lives of patients, medical workers and ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] staff at great risk".

Jacques de Maio, chief of ICRC operations in South Asia, said: "This hampers medical evacuations of wounded civilians and their families."

In his address to diplomats in Colombo on Thursday, Mr Rajapaksa said: "The war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE] is rapidly nearing its conclusion and it is my hope that this will create the space for democracy to flourish in the north again.

"At long last we are on a threshold of defeating terrorism and facing a new era of lasting peace and security for all Sri Lankans."

In his address on Friday - the Buddhist Vesak holiday - the president stressed the need to treat the internally displaced "with kindness and benevolence".

The main Tamil moderate party has called on him to observe an immediate ceasefire.

Tamil United Liberation Front leader V Anandasangari said the president should "get the UN to persuade the LTTE to release the people and in return offer a general amnesty to whoever surrenders".

TamilNet quoted its political commentator in Colombo as saying the US should step in as the UN was "bogged down" and India had "irredeemably lost its positive leverage".

"It is the last chance for the US to strike a political balance in the island, if it is really keen in seeing a meaningful 'post-conflict' process," the commentator said.

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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