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
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

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy