Sri Lanka's government to halt offensive for two days

Sri Lanka's president has ordered a two-day suspension of offensives against Tamil Tiger rebels in order to enable tens of thousands of trapped civilians to leave the war zone, his office said yesterday.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa directed the army to restrict operations during the 13-14 April Sri Lankan New Year to those of a defensive nature, and asked the rebel group to "acknowledge its military defeat and lay down its weapons and surrender." The president's call came amid increasing international pressure on the government to protect those civilians trapped along with the remaining guerrillas in a government-declared "no-fire" zone measuring just 7.7 square miles.

The UN says about 100,000 civilians are trapped in the war zone, with dozens dying every day. The government and aid groups accuse the rebels of using civilians as human shields. The rebels and rights groups have accused the military of firing into the safe zone – a charge the military denies. Independent journalists are barred from the war zone.

Britain welcomed the government announcement but said it was vital that rebels also observe the suspension. "The pause must be long enough for all those who want to leave the conflict zone to do so safely," Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement. "Temporary relief for civilians must be the first step towards a resolution of the conflict."

At least 100,000 protesters marched in London on Saturday to demand an immediate end to Sri Lanka's military offensive and the suspension of development aid to Sri Lanka, a former British colony.

Government forces say they are close to victory in the 25-year war. They had previously rejected calls for a pause in the fighting to allow civilians to leave.