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."

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