Last push to drive out Tamil rebels

Fears of a 'bloodbath on the beach' as Sri Lankan troops advance further into Tiger territory

Sri Lankan troops battled further into the last strip of rebel-held territory yesterday, reportedly allowing more civilians to flee but also triggering mounting fears about a possible "bloodbath on the beach".

The rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said their veteran leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, was directing what appears to be a last stand as government troops pushed forward. According to the rebels, 1,000 civilians had been killed – a government doctor among them – though the military disputed this.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the situation was "nothing short of catastrophic".

A day after 35,000 civilians escaped the now tiny war zone in north-east Sri Lanka, the military said last night that figure had now reached 52,000. "Our troops are rescuing the trapped civilians. It's the LTTE that is preventing civilians from fleeing," the military spokesman Udaya Nanayakkara said. While most escaped on foot, thousands of civilians took to the sea, boarding small boats to escape the coastal strip. Naval boats patrolled the waters, helping to pull the civilians aboard before taking them to makeshift processing centres.

Aid groups say that up to 100,000 civilians remain inside the war zone and are in increasing danger as the government troops push forward.

"The fear is of a bloodbath on the beach," said Sarah Crowe, a regional spokeswoman for Unicef.

"The LTTE needs to let the civilians go and the government must show maximum restraint."

With journalists and almost all aid workers prevented from reaching the war zone, she said there was a danger that the conflict might become a war without witnesses. "It's a catastrophe for the children."

But the Sri Lankan government shows no inclination to stop what it believes is the final play in a bitter, 25-year civil war.

It has repeatedly said that to order a ceasefire now would only give the LTTE an opportunity to strengthen its defences and force more civilians into military roles. On Monday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa made this point to Gordon Brown when the two spoke by telephone.

Thousands of civilians are living directly on the beach in bunkers dug in the sand. They shelter from the elements under tarpaulins. There are shortages of food and medicine, many suffer from diarrhoea, and sanitation facilities are all but non-existent.

With people in the war zone packed so densely together, and with the LTTE fighters believed to be mingling with the civilians, aid groups warn of a likely "dramatic rise" in deaths as the military operation continues.

"The situation is nothing short of catastrophic. Ongoing fighting has killed or wounded hundreds of civilians who have only minimal access to medical care," said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the ICRC director of operations.

The UN estimates that more than 4,500 civilians have been killed and more than 10,000 wounded in the past three months. In an email to reporters yesterday, the LTTE said that about 1,000 civilians were killed and 2,300 wounded in Monday's military operation to breach an earthen wall and allow people to escape. Aid groups say there is widespread evidence the LTTE has been preventing civilians from leaving and has even shot and killed those trying to escape.

Many analysts say that if Sri Lanka is to end the threat from rebels it must work not only to find a political solution for the Tamils but a peaceful conclusion to this military operation.

"At this decisive moment, it is the Sri Lankan government that holds the lives of the trapped Tamil civilians in its hands. It is to the Sri Lankan government that international leaders must send their most immediate messages of restraint," said Robert Temple, of the International Crisis Group.

"How the war ends will be critical to Sri Lanka's future. Will it be in a bloody massacre whose memory will be used to incite decades more war and terrorism? Or will we see renewed efforts to... build a new, more peaceful Sri Lanka for all its people?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power