Tamil rebels resume fighting after truce call rejected (Lead)

Colombo, April 27 (Inditop) Sri Lankan military and Tamil rebels started fighting again around the last LTTE-held area in north-eastern Sri Lanka, where thousands of civilians remain trapped, after the government rejected a rebel ceasefire call, a doctor based in the area said Monday.

Thiyagaraja Sathiyamoorthy, one of the few doctors remaining in the area held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), told journalists via telephone that troops had launched fresh operations to recapture the narrow strip on the coast area of Mullaitivu district, 395 km north-east of the capital Colombo.

“I can hear the exchange of fire between the two sides and the people here have limited areas of going to safety,” the doctor said.

He said that the last ship carrying food and medical supplies reached the trapped civilians April 2, and people were now facing severe shortages.

Earlier in the day the pro-rebel TamilNet website said an operation had been launched around 3.45 a.m. Monday, and heavy gunfire was reported in the area.

Military officials confirmed they were continuing their operations but declined to comment whether they had stepped up the attack.

The LTTE rebels have claimed that an estimated 160,000 civilians are pinned down in the coastal area, but the government says there are only 20,000 civilians still trapped. Other sources say there may be around 40,000 people in the war zone.

“If the expected offensive goes forward, there will be more than 10,000 casualties as the area is densely populated and there is no cover from bombs, shells, and bullets,” the TamilNet quoted a press statement issued by the Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), a front organisation for the LTTE.

Last week some 109,000 civilians fled from the combat zone into into the government-controlled areas, raising the total of number of refugees to 170,000 since January.

The military said they rescued 3,147 civilians from the combat zone Sunday and 53 rebel cadres, including 23 child soldiers who had been recently recruited by the movement surrendered.

Tamil rebels announced a unilateral ceasefire Sunday, but Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa rejected the offer to reciprocate, saying the rebels must surrender.

The defence secretary, who is the brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, vowed to fight until the LTTE is crushed.

“That (ceasefire) is a joke. What is the need for a ceasefire when they are running away?” the defence secretary was quoted as saying in a statement issued by the President’s Office.

“The LTTE must first lay down arms, surrender and let the people go,” he said.

Visiting UN humanitarian chief John Holmes also called for a humanitarian pause enabling civilians to leave the combat zone, but his call has so far been ignored by the Sri Lankan government.

Holmes met Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama Monday to further discuss the trapped civilians’ plight as well as measures to assist those who have already fled the area and are living in government-controlled camps, but details of the meeting were not immediately available.

A scheduled joint press conference by Bogollagamma and Holmes was called off.

“Foreign Secretary David Miliband, together with his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner and Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt, will visit (Sri Lanka) Wednesday,” a statement from the British High Commission said.

The British foreign secretary Sunday also called on the Sri Lankan government to announce a ceasefire enabling civilians who remained trapped in the conflict area to move to safety.

“The safety of civilians is of paramount importance and both sides must comply fully with international humanitarian law and ensure the protection of civilians at all times,” Miliband said in a statement which was also released in Colombo.

The military says they are on the final phase of crushing the LTTE who have been fighting in the north and eastern parts of Sri Lanka for an independent homeland for minority Tamils from the Sinhalese majority for the last 25 years.