Hunger striker 'critical' as Tamil crisis grows

Sri Lanka pressed ahead with its military onslaught against the Tamil Tigers last night despite calls from Britain and France for an immediate ceasefire to allow thousands of civilians to escape the conflict zone.

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, called on Sri Lanka to halt their offensive in the north while visiting one of the displacement camps that have sprung up to house Tamil refugees and root out Tiger fighters.

Their calls came as doctors gave a Tamil hunger striker in Parliament Square "just days" to live. Parameswaram Subramaniam has been on a hunger strike for 23 days. He recently stepped up his protest by refusing to even take water.

Fears are growing that Mr Subramaniam will carry out his threat to starve himself to death unless Britain secures an immediate ceasefire from the Sri Lankan government. He has signed a statement rejecting medical treatment if he falls unconscious.

Dr Velauthapillai Arudkumar, one of four Tamil doctors monitoring Mr Subramaniam, said: "He is very weak and we are worried that he might slip into a coma in the next few days unless he takes some water. We keep asking him to drink but he simply refuses."

Mr Miliband said he was demanding a ceasefire to protect the estimated 50,000 civilians caught in the "safe-zone" where the fighting is taking place, not to save the Tamil Tigers leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

"No one in the international community has been calling for a ceasefire or to stop firing to save Prabhakaran," he said. "The calls have come because of the overwhelming concern with the wellbeing of the civilians. Now is the time for the fighting to stop. Sri Lanka's military advances have been spectacular, but winning the peace is as vital as winning the war."

The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly rejected calls for a truce, saying any pause in its battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would give the rebels time to regroup.

Mr Milliband and Mr Kouchner are the highest-level European officials to visit the island since the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. But in a clear snub to the European powers, Colombo barred the Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, from attending the talks.

The Sri Lankan army has pushed back the Tamils Tigers to five square miles of land in the north-east of the island. Yesterday morning, the army said it had sunk a number of "suicide boats" which were being commandeered by 25 rebels.

The army claims to have stopped using heavy artillery, to protect trapped civilians. But a pro-Tamil website said artillery shells from navy gunships had landed on a makeshift hospital in Mullivaaykkaal, killing nine civilians. Journalists are banned from entering the war zone, making it difficult to verify claims by the army or the LTTE.