17 May 2009

Tamil Tigers 'call ceasefire'

10:04 pm on 17 May 2009

Tamil rebels holed up in a tiny enclave of northern Sri Lanka have declared a ceasefire, a rebel spokesman says.

The Tamil Tigers (LTTE) had given up their fight against a major government offensive and "decided to silence our guns", he said on a pro-Tamil website.

"This battle has reached its bitter end," said Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the Tigers' chief of international relations, in a statement on Tamilnet.

A later statement on the Tamilnet website appeared to modify the rebel position.

Mr Pathmanathan said the LTTE was "prepared to silence its guns if that is what needed by the international community to save the life and dignity of the Tamil people".

"In the past 24 hours, over 3,000 civilians lie dead on the streets while another 25,000 are critically injured with no medical attention," said the statement.

In contrast, Sri Lankan military officials said earlier that all the civilians who had been trapped in Sri Lanka's northern war zone had escaped.

Army spokesman Brigidair Udaya Nanayakkara said some 50,000 ethnic Tamils had fled the area over the past three days.

Like all accounts from the war zone, neither claim can be independently verified.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Saturday said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had been defeated militarily in the 25-year civil war, even as combat still raged in the island's northeast.

The military said it had rescued all the civilians being held by the LTTE as human shields.

"All civilians from Vellimullivaikal have been rescued. The troops are still fighting the LTTE. Over 50,000 have been rescued since Thursday," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.

But aid agencies in Sri Lanka say they can't verify the claim that all civilians were out of the country's northern war zone.

Earlier on Sunday, Sri Lanka's army said it killed at least 70 Tiger fighters masquerading as civilians who tried to cross the Nanthikadal lagoon, on the western side of the battlezone, in six boats.

Government forces on Saturday took control of the entire island's coast for the first time since the war broke out in 1983.

Nearly 37,000 people fled to army-held areas on Saturday, bringing the total since Thursday to more than 50,000.

Before the exodus started, the United Nations had estimated there were 50,000-100,000 there.

The United Nations rights chief on Friday said she backed an inquiry into potential war crimes and humanitarian violations by both sides.