In Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger rebels have denied
accusations by the United Nations that they are shooting at civilians to prevent
them from leaving the conflict zone in the north. But concern is growing about
the risks faced by a quarter of a million civilians who are caught in the battle
raging between the rebels and the Sri Lankan military.
A day after the
United Nations said it has credible reports that civilians trying to cross the
battle lines in northeastern Sri Lanka have been shot at, and sometimes killed
by the Tamil Tigers, a swift denial came from the rebels.
Rehabilitation Organization - a front group for the rebels - says the U.N. has
leveled the allegation to hide its "own failures". It accuses the U.N. of
withdrawing its local staff from the war zone and shedding its responsibility of
taking care of civilians.
After losing their strongholds, the rebels,
also known as the LTTE, are now confined to a small strip of jungle along with
an estimated 250,000 ethnic Tamil civilians.
Absence of civilians could leave rebels
The head of Colombo's National Peace Council, Jehan
Perera, says, in recent weeks, there have been many reports that rebels are
forcibly keeping these people in the war zone.
He says the LTTE does not
want the civilians to leave because it will make the rebels vulnerable to the
full fire power of the military.
"What this indicates is that the LTTE
is feeling very desperate and they are very fearful that if the civilians leave,
that they will be isolated there and this would enable the government forces to
come in with their heavy weaponry and eliminate them," Perera explained.
Rebels recruiting children
agencies say hundreds of civilians have been killed or wounded in recent weeks
as they come under artillery firing or bombing as the military advances to crush
The U.N. says the rebels are forcibly recruiting children and
have recruited a U.N. worker into their ranks. It says even a "no-fire zone"
declared by the government for civilians who escape has not been spared from the
Jehan Perera says thousands of civilians have sought refuge in
the last week, but continue to be caught in the cross fire.
problem is that the LTTE then goes into the safe zone with their guns and fires
at the military and then the military in turn often fires back at the LTTE, with
the result [there are] civilian casualties," he said. "So it is quite a
horrendous situation for civilians who are trapped there."
So far both
the government and the rebels have ignored repeated calls by the U.N., other aid
agencies and several countries to halt the conflict briefly to allow the
civilians to leave.
The government says it is close to defeating the
rebels and cannot stop in the last stages of a military campaign, which it hopes
will put an end to a quarter century long struggle by the rebels for an
independent Tamil homeland.