Sri Lankan troops enter last rebel town


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Feb 19, 2009
Sri Lankan forces entered the last town under rebel control Tuesday, the military said, as the government brushed aside international calls for a cease-fire to allow tens of thousands of civilians to escape the war zone.

In recent months, the military has driven the Tamil Tigers out of their major strongholds in the north and confined them to a small patch of coastal land along the northeast. The government has vowed to destroy the rebels and end the 25-year-old civil war plaguing this island nation.

After breaching rebel defenses, troops entered the edge of Puthukkudiyiruppu on Tuesday and were fighting house-to-house battles with small groups of rebels on the outskirts of the town, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.

"They are resisting and retreating," Nanyakkara said of the rebel fighters.

The town's capture would be another devastating blow to the already reeling rebels and their dreams of creating an independent state in the north and east. The guerrillas, who controlled a wide swath of the north less than a year ago, would be left with little more than a handful of tiny villages and a small strip of coast.

Aid groups estimate as many as 200,000 civilians are trapped in the shrinking rebel area, and Human Rights Watch said last week 2,000 have been killed in recent months and accused both sides of committing war crimes.

The Tamil Tigers accused the military of launching artillery into a government-declared "safe zone" inside rebel-held territory Tuesday in an attack that killed at least 10 civilians and wounded 25 others. More than 30 civilians were killed in fighting Monday, the rebels said in a posting on their Web site.

Dr. Thurairaja Varatharajah, the top government health official in the war zone, said five civilians sleeping in a hut were killed overnight by shelling less than 100 yards (meters) from the makeshift hospital he runs out of a school inside the "safe zone."

The military has repeatedly denied firing into the 7.5-mile-long (12-kilometer-long) area.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Monday for a halt to the fighting to allow the civilians to flee and for political talks to urgently end the conflict that has cost 70,000 lives since 1983.

"There is an urgent need to bring this conflict to an end without any further unnecessary loss of civilian life and destruction of Sri Lankan society," Ban said.

The government said Tuesday it had no plans to stop its offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. "The LTTE must lay down its weapons and that will automatically guarantee a cease-fire," Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona said.

In a letter to the United Nations on Monday, the rebels also appealed for a cease-fire but said they would not lay down its weapons.

The EU also has called for an immediate halt to fighting and says the government must stop its human rights abuses. India's government on Tuesday offered again to help evacuate civilians from the war zone and to provide relief supplies.

The rebels have been fighting for an independent state for the Tamil minority after decades of marginalization by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.

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