Sri Lankan army closes net on rebels

As the coast is captured, the Tamil Tigers and tens of thousands of civilians are caught in a trap. Andrew Buncombe reports

One of the world's longest-running civil wars appeared to be in its final, bloody phase last night after Sri Lankan troops took control of the island's entire coast, completely encircling rebel fighters in a space just 1.2 miles square and cutting off a possible escape by sea for their senior leaders. The country's President predicted that the fight would be over in a matter of hours.

Armoured divisions moving towards each other along the island's north-eastern coastline linked up at the village of Vellamullivaikkal, giving the military control of the entire coastline for the first time in 25 years.

While the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is surely imminent, the fate of civilians trapped in a tiny patch of land with the rebels was unclear. International officials said they were extremely worried about what might play out in the next few hours. "We are gravely concerned for the safety of between 30,000 and 80,000 civilians still in the war zone," said Gordon Weiss, a UN spokesman in Colombo. The UN has estimated that 7,000 civilians have been killed and a further 16,700 wounded since the beginning of the year. "We are particularly concerned for the safety of two doctors – Varatharajah and Sathyamurthy – who courageously kept the medical services going throughout the months of the siege."

Sri Lankan authorities have, since two pauses in the fighting last month to allow the evacuation of civilians, dismissed renewed international calls for a ceasefire. But officials were still working last night towards a negotiated end to the violence. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, sent his chief-of-staff, Vijay Nambiar, to Sri Lanka for a second time to try to bring the conflict to a peaceful conclusion. He was due to arrive yesterday evening for a series of meetings. Gordon Brown also repeated his call for a ceasefire.

It would be remarkable if Mr Nambiar or his boss could do anything to stop the Sri Lankan military. After a brutal civil war in which the Tigers repeatedly used suicide bombs against civilians and military targets, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has made clear his intention to crush the remaining 1,000 rebel fighters as quickly as possible. Threatened by the US with the blocking of a $1.9bn loan from the International Monetary Fund, Mr Rajapaksa on Thursday evening predicted that the operation would be completed within 48 hours. As he prepared to come home yesterday from a trip to Jordan, he announced: "I will return to Sri Lanka as a leader of a nation that vanquished terrorism."

The last fighters are surrounded by some 50,000 government troops. In recent days, thousands more civilians have fled the war zone amid claims that government forces have been using heavy artillery. The UN said around 20,000 people left in the last couple of days and as many as 4,500 may have escaped yesterday alone. Anywhere up to 200,000 civilians in total have been able to escape and are currently being interned in refugee camps surrounded by razor wire.

In addition to the uncertainty hanging over the future of those civilians still trapped – reportedly being prevented from leaving by the Tigers – the fate of the rebels' reclusive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and his top deputies, is also unknown. Troops have been scouring the war zone for Mr Prabhakaran, and officials say they believe he is still there, but some people speculate that he has already escaped. It has long been said that the rebels' leader wears a small canister of cyanide around his neck and has ordered his bodyguards to shoot him dead rather than allow him to be captured alive. On Friday evening, the Sri Lankan navy said it intercepted a boat off the north-eastern coast and arrested the wife, son and daughter of the rebels' sea wing leader. They were said to be among 11 people on board,

Even at this late hour, the rebels have been repeating their calls for the government to enact a ceasefire, and restart talks that broke off last year. Selvarasa Pathmanathan, who heads the rebels' international relations department, told the Associated Press that the group welcomed President Barack Obama's call last week for a peaceful end to the war and said they would do "anything that is necessary" to spare civilians. He did not say whether the rebels were prepared to lay down their arms.

Precisely what the conditions are for those still in the war zone is unclear. Even before the rebels were completely surrounded, the thousands of civilians were packed together under tarpaulin shelters, dug into the sand. Food, water and medicine were in short supply; sanitation has been abysmal. But the past week has apparently seen an escalation in shelling, despite the government's undertaking not to use heavy weaponry. Health officials claimed that up to 1,000 civilians were killed as government shells continued to fall, including strikes on the last clinic, set up in a school. Even that clinic is no longer operating as the few remaining medics were forced to escape. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that it had been unable to land the ferry it has been using to take away the most badly wounded civilians to hospitals outside the war zone. It is understood that the three most senior doctors, Dr Thurairajah Varatharajah, Dr T Sathyamurthy and another physician, were being held by the Sri Lankan military yesterday in the town of Omanthai. The phones used by the doctors in recent weeks to provide journalists with an idea of the misery inside the war zone all rang dead.

A few days ago, the ICRC said its handful of staff were witnessing an "unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe". Meanwhile, a report on the pro-Tamil website TamilNet – which cannot be confirmed because journalists and almost all aid workers have been blocked from reaching the area – claimed thousands of corpses now littered the war zone.

"An uncounted number of dead bodies, between 2,000 and 3,000, are lying all over the place in civilian congested area and the civilians are all struck by a heavy stench of dead bodies," it said, quoting a volunteer doctor. "The army has destroyed all medical facilities by targeted attacks, and was continuing inhuman and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, providing only two options – death or surrender."

The Tigers have been fighting for an autonomous homeland for Tamils, which it says are discriminated against by Sri Lanka's Sinhala Buddhist majority. Mr Rajapaksa, whose brother heads the powerful Defence Ministry, has said he is open to a political settlement that would help appease the Tamil community, but only after the rebels – who once controlled a large part of north and eastern Sri Lanka – have been militarily defeated. But analysts say that even if, as seems all but certain, the last rebel fighters are killed in this operation, sufficient numbers of Tigers have probably escaped to allow an on-going guerilla operation using hit-and-run tactics.

Downing Street said yesterday that Mr Brown had made several calls to Mr Rajapaksa asking for an end to the fighting. The Prime Minister called on the Tigers to lay down their arms and added: "Sri Lanka stands on the brink. We have called repeatedly for the violence to cease. The humanitarian agencies must be granted access to civilians caught in the crossfire of a dreadful conflict. Sri Lanka must understand that there will be consequences for its actions."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The two faces revealed by the ultraviolet light
newsScholars left shaken after shining ultraviolet light on 500-year-old Welsh manuscript
News
Rosamund Pike played Bond girld Miranda Frost, who died in Die Another Day (PA)
news
Arts and Entertainment
books
News
newsHow do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? With people like this
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • 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

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat