Rebels using villagers as human shields, says defence chief

Just before yesterday's offensive, Sri Lanka's Defence Minister said he had approved a mission to save civilians trapped inside the war zone.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said the LTTE (the Tamil Tigers) were using civilians as human shields. "I don't know why people keep calling [the LTTE leader, Velupillai] Prabakharan a military genius," Mr Rajapaksa said.

"He says he is fighting for the Tamil people but he is using the lives of innocent civilians to save his life. It is not a military tactic."

The minister, who is the President's brother and thought by many observers to wield considerable power behind the scenes, said the government had rejected international calls for a ceasefire because the pause would have allowed the rebels time to enlist and train more fighters, which would drag out the conflict and further imperil civilians.

Asked about photographs sent from the war zone that appear to confirm reports that many civilians had been killed and wounded, Mr Rajapaksa seemed to suggest they were fake. "You should know that the LTTE has full control of the no-fire zone," he said. "Anything that comes out from there is under the LTTE [direction]."

The minister claimed between 500 and 600 Sri Lankan Army soldiers had been killed this year as a result of the government's efforts to crush the rebels and end the civil war. He said other security measures were being carried out to guard against LTTE "sleepers" launching suicide bomb attacks after the military operation was completed – a move that a number of analysts have predicted.

Efforts would have to be made to heal the country after years of conflict, he said, adding: "This is the most difficult thing."