Sri Lanka is rejecting international calls for a cease-fire with Tamil Tiger rebels in the war-torn north, but the government says it will allow civilians to escape the fighting, and is urging the separatists to do the same.
The minister of disaster management and human rights (Mahinda Samarasinghe) on Friday disputed reports that hundreds of civilians have been killed in intense fighting over the last two weeks, and said there will be no cease-fire.
A Tamil Tiger official told a pro-Tamil Web site (Tamilnet) that the Sri Lankan government has stepped up artillery attacks on civilian areas, leaving at least 28 people dead Friday. He also called for a permanent cease-fire supported by the international community.
Neither claims by the government nor the rebel group can be verified since journalists are not allowed into the war zone.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday urged both the government and the Tamil Tigers to allow for the safe passage of civilians out of the war zone.
The Sri Lankan minister also rejected estimates by international aid agencies on the number of civilians trapped by the fighting. Aid agencies say up to a quarter of a million people are unable to escape to safety, but the minister said it is not more than 120-thousand.
The UN children's agency (UNICEF) said the fighting is wounding an increasing number of children, some of them just months old.
In related news, hundreds of Tamils formed a human chain in the Canadian city of Toronto to protest Sri Lanka's offensive against the Tamil rebels.
Meanwhile, an international media watchdog is urging Sri Lanka's government to give journalists access to war zones in the country's north.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders Friday also asked the government to bring an end to the violent attacks against members of the independent Sri Lankan press. In recent weeks, a reporter was attacked on the way to work in Colombo, and a top newspaper editor (Lasantha Wickramatunga) was killed by an unidentified gunman.