Refugee exodus as Tigers reach Jaffna

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The Independent Online

More than 200,000 civilians in and around Jaffna in Sri Lanka's far north began flooding out of the embattled city yesterday as rebel forces claimed to have reached the gates of their former capital.

More than 200,000 civilians in and around Jaffna in Sri Lanka's far north began flooding out of the embattled city yesterday as rebel forces claimed to have reached the gates of their former capital.

The Tiger separatist rebels fighting to recapture the city they lost to government troops five years ago, said they were within striking distance of the administrative district.

The rebel claims were denied by the Sri Lankan government, whose bombers and helicopter gunships continued to pound guerrilla positions yesterday. As the army lifted a dusk-to-dawn curfew thousands were gathering their meagre belongings.

"Our cadres are advancing toward Jaffna city and there will be heavy firing and cross-firing," the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam said in a radio broadcast. "Please go to places of safety, as we can move into the city any moment."

International humanitarian organisations in Colombo are worried about the 500,000 Tamils on the Jaffna peninsula, pounded by the artillery and mortars of rebel and government troops.

The Tiger rebels began their offensive on Jaffna on Wednesday with a surprise attack. They had been emboldened after capturing the strategic Elephant Pass on 22 April, a major defeat for the government, whose 28,000-strong army outnumbers the rebels by seven to one. A guerrilla capture of Jaffna would be their most crushing victory.

An official release in Colombo said nine Sri Lankan army personnel were killed yesterday and 86 wounded. That brings the combined death toll on both sides in two days of fighting to more than 200.

At least 60,000 people have died since the ethnic conflict began in 1983, when the Tamils launched their bid for a homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

The government defences are around Colombothurai, a suburb of Jaffna. State-owned Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation said Sri Lankan air force jets had destroyed a rebel communication centre in Pooneryn, across a lagoon south of the Jaffna peninsula.

In Colombo, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga, said the battle is "a decisive moment" and told the military sophisticated weaponry was arriving that would "silence" the Tamil guns.

An official in Jerusalem said Israel is to sell eight Kfir warplanes to Sri Lanka for $24m, one week after the countries restored diplomatic relations following a 30-year lapse.

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