28 Apr 2009

Envoys fail to help trapped Sri Lankan civilians

9:50 pm on 28 April 2009

Diplomatic efforts to help thousands of civilians trapped by fighting in northern Sri Lanka appear to have made little progress.

The Sri Lankan government, whose forces are advancing on the last enclave held by Tamil Tiger rebels, said on Monday that it would stop using heavy weapons in the area, but there are doubts about whether this has happened.

The rebels say the area is still being bombarded.

The United Nations' top humanitarian envoy, John Holmes, says he has failed to secure agreement from the Sri Lankan government on UN access to the civilians.

There have been reports of fresh casualties in the conflict zone.

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 the rebels had "reached their conclusion".

The UN says about 50,000 civilians remain trapped in a no-fire zone, but the army puts the number at 15,000.

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 the BBC reports that figure could now be higher because of intensified fighting in recent weeks.

The rebels have now been beaten back to an area of 12 square kilometres.