Over 13,000 civilians flee LTTE-held areas, 17 die in blast (Second Lead)

Colombo, April 20 (Inditop) Over 13,000 civilians Monday fled Sri Lanka’s northern war-zone while 17 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack by the Tamil Tigers, authorities said.

“The operation to rescue civilians was launched last (Sunday) night amid stiff LTTE resistance. With the troops capturing a three-km-long LTTE earth-bund at Puthumathalan area, over 13,000 thousand people have crossed to the government-held area till this (Monday) morning,” military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said here.

He said that most of the civilians besieged in the Puthumathalan No Fire Zone (NFZ) made their way across the Nathikkadal lagoon area, defying the orders of the rebels to stay on. They reached the army-held areas in Puthukkudiyiruppu.

“Troops in Puthukkudiyiruppu confirmed a huge exodus of people is on the way,” Brig. Nanayakkara said, charging that the LTTE fired several rounds of artillery shells towards the escaping civilians.

The defence ministry in a report said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) carried out a suicide bomb attack Monday morning, desperately aiming to prevent the civilian exodus.

“At least 17 civilians including women and children have been killed in the cowardly bomb blast,” it said.

The state-run television showed video footage of thousands of civilians, including children, women and elders, fleeing the war-zone and entering the army-held areas a couple of kilometres away.

The area was flooded with people. Most of them were carrying children and a small bag which seemed to be their only property.

Military sources said that the mass exodus of people in a matter of few hours “clearly demonstrated the fact that the LTTE and its leadership have lost the support of the people whom it has held hostage for past three months”.

According the state-run television, the military authorities “even at this last moment have demanded the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his cadres lay down their weapons and surrender without delay to avoid facing a total annihilation”.

According to the military estimates, some 70,000 civilians have been trapped in a 12-km stretch along the coastal area for the past three months, though some of the villagers have been able to escape against the wishes of the Tamil Tigers.

An estimated 68,000 civilians have left the rebel-held areas since the beginning of 2009 and are currently housed in refugee camps and welfare centres in the northern Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna districts.

The military says it is in the last phase of a drive to crush the LTTE, which has been fighting to carve out a separate state in the northern eastern region of the island since 1983.