(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times
NEW DELHI -- In a sign of its growing confidence, Sri Lanka on Monday issued an ultimatum calling on Tamil rebels to surrender or perish after the army reportedly breached a major defensive barrier, paving the way for tens of thousands of civilians to make a run for it.
Troops captured an additional square-mile area of the rebels' shrinking terrain Monday, freeing about 19,000 civilians trapped by the fighting, while the navy freed another 2,165 people as more fled in other directions, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.
By some reports, as many as 35,000 noncombatants fled the hotly contested battle zone.
None of the claims could be verified since the Sri Lankan government rarely allows independent media, civic or monitoring groups into the conflict area.
Government forces broke through part of a 7-mile-long barrier built by the rebels as they prepared for their last stand, military officials said. The breach allowed civilians to flee the area.
Last week, the government announced a 48-hour halt in its attacks against the rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, so some of the estimated 100,000 trapped civilians could leave the area. But few emerged.
The government blamed that on rebel leaders who, they and some international groups said, have been using noncombatants as human shields.
Sri Lanka has been under international pressure to address a growing humanitarian crisis. But the government has said repeatedly any easing up of pressure will only help the Tigers to escape or regroup.
The civil war has raged for the past quarter century. In recent months, however, largely due to more aggressive tactics and a major increase in its ranks, the army has made significant gains, trapping most Tiger fighters in an area as small as 6.5 square miles on the island's northern coast.
"Militarily, (the Tamil fighters) appear to have lost their major artillery weapons, including 130mm (millimeter) guns and anti-aircraft weapons," wrote Col. R. Hariharan, a retired Indian military intelligence official who served in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s, in a recent report. "Thus the security forces have overwhelmed the LTTE, not only physically, but also psychologically."
The Tigers seek a homeland for Tamils, a minority in the Sinhalese-dominated South Asian country. The U.S. and European Union have labeled the Tigers a terrorist group.
UNICEF said some 17,000 people arrived in welfare camps Monday and were registered.
After "the two-day easing of hostilities a week ago, we saw a trickle," said Sarah Crowe, New Delhi-based regional spokesman for the group. "Now there seems to be a flood. Perhaps there's been a glimmer of hope for civilians that they would receive assistance at the other end."
The Tigers could not be reached for comment. But a pro-Tiger Web site suggested government forces mistreated fleeing civilians. "Hundreds of dead bodies and wounded civilians were still lying in Matthalan and Pokkanai," two villages in the no-fire zone, www.tamilnet.com said.
Monday's ultimatum to surrender or die is one of dozens issued by the army over the years. Velupillai Prabhakaran, 54, the ruthless leader of the Tigers, who has pioneered such tactics as the suicide bomb vest later used by other militant groups globally, reportedly wears a cyanide vial around his neck to prevent his being captured alive.
"Definitely the LTTE leaders may not come over, but the cadres may," Nanayakkara said.
The military is not likely to allow independent observers into the war zone on safety grounds until a government victory is assured, he added.
In an apparent bid to burnish its hard-line image at a time when large groups of overseas Tamils and supporters are protesting around the world, the military took a small number of journalists to a battle management center Monday and showed them what it said were live and taped footage of the battle zone and of fleeing civilians.
Despite procedures designed to separate civilians from undercover Tiger fighters, Tamil suicide bombers infiltrated welfare camps Monday, Nanayakkara said, killing 17 people and wounding 200.
"UNICEF holds great fear for the tens of thousands of children trapped in these intense hostilities," said James Elder, a UNICEF official in Colombo. "Our fear is that, with this outbreak of fighting, the worst is yet to come."