(c) 2009, The Washington Post
NEW DELHI, India The Sri Lankan government gave the Tamil Tiger rebels 24 hours to surrender Monday after as many as 35,000 civilians, allegedly being held by rebels as human shields, poured through a broken rebel barricade to flee the last Tiger stronghold, officials said.
The Sri Lankan air force released videos showing harried families traversing lagoons and swampy fields to a nearby beach, while others headed south to heavily restricted government camps for food, shelter and medical care.
In a nationally televised speech, President Mahinda Rajapaksa called the exodus the "largest-ever hostage rescue mission in history." He urged the rebels to surrender before noon Tuesday, marking the latest standoff in Asia's longest-running conflict.
"The footage clearly shows that the people are defying the LTTE and escaping," Rajapaksa said, referring to the rebel group's formal name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. "They are running to safety."
The latest turn of events comes after months of fierce warfare waged by the Sri Lankan government in an effort to root out Tamil rebels from an eight-square-mile patch of northern coastal land. It is difficult to verify information from either side because the war zone is sealed off to journalists, but the United Nations estimates that up to 100,000 people remain trapped by fighting.
Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said that troops launched a massive offensive Monday, breaching the barricade blocking the main route in and out of a government no-fire zone.
"At the moment, we have rescued these civilians. This is going to be the end soon," he said in a telephone interview from Colombo, the capital.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's office issued a statement saying that while Ban welcomes the departure of civilians to safer areas, he "remains deeply concerned about the circumstances of the civilians that remain in the conflict zone and the potential for large-scale casualties."
Ban "deplores the continued use of heavy weapons in the vicinity of civilians" along with the Tamil Tigers' use of force to keep civilians in the combat zone, the statement said. The United Nations has called for a cease-fire to allow the civilians to leave, but the government has largely rejected that call, saying it is on the verge of crushing the uprising.
This is not the first time Sri Lanka's top officials have predicted a quick end to the conflict, which has taken an estimated 70,000 lives and polarized this Indian Ocean island off the southern tip of India for a quarter-century. The Tamil Tigers, known for their use of guerrilla warfare and female suicide bombers, once dominated nearly a third of the island, running their own government in the north.
The rebels often employ audacious tactics, including an air raid on the capital in February a show of power that unfolded even as the government said the rebels were days from being defeated and trapped on a sliver of territory in the north. The surprise attack left at least three people dead and 48 wounded.
The rebels say they are fighting for a separate homeland for the country's ethnic Tamil, largely Hindu, minority, which claims discrimination at the hands of the country's Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
The pro-rebel Web site TamilNet said hundreds of civilians were feared killed Monday, describing the situation as "total chaos" as rebels and civilians came under heavy fire from government troops. Rebels have not been reachable for comment. Still at large is the elusive Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, whom government officials say they prefer to capture alive.
"We have given a final warning to Prabhakaran and his terrorist group to surrender to the government forces within 24 hours from 12 noon," Sri Lankan defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters at an air force command center in Colombo.
"Thereafter will be a military course of action," Rambukwella said.