Monday, April 20, 2009

Sri Lanka: thousands flee battle zone

SRI LANKA – The army breached one of the last Tamil Tiger rebel fortifications Monday and freed thousands of trapped civilians, some fleeing through the neck-high water of a lagoon while bleeding or carrying wounded relatives.

The government warned the rebels they had 24 hours to surrender or face a final assault to end a crumbling 25-year insurgency that sought to create a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils on this South Asian island.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa went on Sri Lanka's national television to say that soldiers helped more than 35,000 civilians leave the battle zone in what he called the "largest-ever hostage rescue mission in history."

The Red Cross said its workers had tended to 4,000 people who crossed the front lines Monday. Spokeswoman Sarasi Wijeratne said the organization was not in a position to "confirm or deny" the large number being quoted.

A pro-rebel Web site, meanwhile, said hundreds of civilians might have been killed in the "total chaos" that prevailed when soldiers entered the zone.

It was not possible to verify any of the reports because journalists are restricted in the war zone. More>>

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