27 Apr 2009

Sri Lanka ends heavy fighting against rebels

9:03 pm on 27 April 2009

The Sri Lankan government has announced a surprise end to its combat operations against Tamil Tiger rebels in the north-east of the island.

Earlier, the government rejected a proposal by the rebels for an unconditional ceasefire.

Troops will no longer use heavy weapons or air strikes in fighting against the rebels, a government statement says. The army would focus on trying to rescue civilians.

Concern has been rising over civilian deaths. The rebels are boxed in to a shrinking patch of land which they share with thousands of civilians.

On Sunday the government dismissed a Tamil Tiger ceasefire offer as a "joke" and said the rebels were near defeat.

The statement from the office of the president said combat operations in the civil war between the military and Tamil Tiger rebels were now at an end.

"The government of Sri Lanka has decided that combat operations have reached their conclusion. Our security forces have been instructed to end the use of heavy calibre guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons which could cause civilian casualties," it said.

"Our security forces will confine their attempts to rescuing civilians who are held hostage and give foremost priority to saving civilians."

The United Nations says 50,000 civilians remain trapped in a government-designated no-fire zone, but the army puts the number at 15,000.

The rebels have been beaten back to a 12 square kilometre area.

The Tamil Tigers have fought for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority since 1983.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in the war, but that figure could now be far higher because of intensified fighting in recent weeks.